Will new US visa rules create second-class citizens?

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Rasha Elass is a global fellow at PS21 who previously reported from Damascus for Reuters, NPR and others.

Many years ago, before the so-called war on terror, a German immigration airport official glanced at my U.S. passport and asked: “Were you born an American or are you naturalized?”

Perplexed and a little offended (no airport official had asked me that before or since), I told him that, in the U.S., we did not discriminate on such basis, so he should not be doing so either.

But soon, this might change.

On December 8, Congress passed the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, which had been folded into the omnibus annual spending bill. The new VWP regulations single out certain citizens of the 38 European and Asian countries that are in visa waiver partnership with the U.S.  Anyone who is a dual citizen of Syria, Iraq, Iran, or Sudan will be no longer eligible for the visa waiver when they want to visit the U.S. The same goes for anyone who has visited these four Arab countries in the past five years.

These measures, which received overwhelming bipartisan support including a public endorsement from the White House, are deeply problematic.

The original VWP gave citizens of the 38 partner countries the opportunity to travel freely between each others’ border, without requiring the traveler to undergo the sometimes arduous process of obtaining a visa prior to departure, a process that can take days, weeks, sometimes months, depending on the countries involved.

But with the new changes to VWP, the affected European and Asian countries can reciprocate in kind against the U.S., and actively discriminate against Americans of Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, and Sudanese origin in what has civil rights groups calling foul.

“We’re creating second class citizens with this bill,” said Abed Ayoub, the Legal and Policy Director at the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee, referring to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who are dual nationals who could be affected by reciprocity to this bill. His organization is already trying to prepare for the fallout, which is a difficult task because, he says, “there is no precedent on these specific measures.”

“We oppose and criticized the bill. It’s reasonable for the U.S. to strengthen security measures, but it’s not reasonable to discriminate against dual nationals,” said Joanne Lin, an attorney at American Civil Liberties Union.

Countries like Syria and Iran have no legal framework that would allow the relinquishing of citizenship, so technically anyone whose father is Syrian or Iranian is a citizen of these countries whether or not they chose it.

Another complication arises when dual citizens have family ties in their home country. Already, they must contend with impossible embargoes and international regulations that restrict the movement of money to loved ones back home.

For example, Syrian-Americans cannot send money directly to family members stranded inside Syria, whether in rebel held territory or in government controlled Damascus. No financial institution will transfer the funds there directly, forcing many Syrian-Americans to take undue risk and deal with third parties, like well-meaning friends in neighboring countries who agree to receive the funds through wire transfer then send it as cash with a fourth party into Syria, which can put the life of this person at great risk. Iranian-Americans and many other dual nationals have been dealing with similar obstacles for years.

With this bill, as if not enough forces have conspired against innocent Syrian civilians, everyone of Syrian origin in the VWP partner countries must jump through additional hoops.

Also, as the legislation is currently worded, there is no protection from extra scrutiny for professionals who travel to the sanctioned four countries for legitimate reasons, including journalists, human rights defenders, humanitarian aid workers, medical support personnel, academics, field researchers, and many others.

Indeed, even the tens of thousands of U.S. government personnel who have made a career out of traveling to Iraq in the past five years may not be protected from additional scrutiny when they travel to Europe.

The bill gained traction in the aftermath of the Paris Attacks and later the San Bernardino shootings. While minimizing the threat of terrorism from visitors to the U.S. should remain a high priority, it is ironic that this bill does not sanction those who have visited other countries known to have a correlation with terrorism.

The San Bernardino shooters, for example, had visited and lived in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where they were radicalized, according to the FBI. The Paris Attack culprits went to Syria through Turkey, like tens of thousands of other international jihadists. Yet the new VWP bill mentions none of these U.S. allies. Instead, it focuses on countries that have little or no clout in Washington,  and leaves many Americans vulnerable to discrimination abroad.

So the next time an airport immigration official in a foreign country asks whether or not I am a “real American”, it is truly unfortunate that I will have to pause a little before I answer.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Strategic Narratives without Strategy


Zachary Wolfraim is a PhD researcher in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, where he focuses on the role of narratives in shaping foreign policy behaviour. He previously worked as a consultant in NATO Headquarters on operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and LibyaYou can follow him at @Zachwol.

After the attacks of November 13 President Hollande vowed a ‘pitiless’ war against ISIS and committed additional French resources in order to wage war against the organisation. While other Western nations have supported an increased aerial bombing campaign against ISIS, the development of any kind of actual solution to the crisis on the ground has been missing. The response thus far has largely focused on tackling symptomatic problems stemming from previous inaction in Syria. For the time being, the war being waged is from the air and through the airwaves.

On a different but related front, Russian activity in Syria poses yet another challenge in light of recent events with Turkey. Since 2014 Russia has been probing the fringes of NATO and testing Western responses, exemplified by the invasion of Ukraine. The latest incident threatens to once again expose fault lines in the Alliance and potentially test member states commitment to Article V. With Russia, as with ISIS, the West has been caught on the back foot, continuously forced to respond to events rather than leading them.

There has been ongoing discussion of the importance of the narrative or the ‘strategic narrative’ of the conflicts in Syria and with Russia and how, in many ways, the West has been outmaneuvered by adversaries that have been far more effective in communicating its message. Indeed, if we build on Lawrence Freedman’s contention that a strategic narrative is deliberately constructed in order to shape behaviours and achieve a desired end-state, taking Iraq and Afghanistan as other recent examples; Western countries have been pretty miserable on this score.[1]

Since 9/11 it has been hard to pin down a singular, compelling narrative that has defined Western military interventions, in part due to the lack of overarching strategy that established their objectives. An inconclusive decade of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan has left the electorates of Western countries wary of further interventions built on tenuous or conflicting strategic goals. The narrative of the previous campaigns changed frequently over the years ranging from regime change to counter terrorism to state building and so on; ultimately leaving the reasons for these interventions clouded and unclear. The failure of strategic thinking has engrained a deep level of scepticism towards Western military interventions creating a vacuum into which other actors such as ISIS and Russia could create compelling and effective counter-narratives.

ISIS has thus far proven itself relatively adept at being able to utilise social media as a method by which to project its message to receptive followers as well as create avenues for recruitment. In part, this is due to the fact that they have a clear end-state. Similarly, Russia has had a much clearer vision about what it aims to achieve strategically, specifically, the restoration of Russia’s international power and clear influence over the countries in its immediate neighbourhood. As Anne Applebaum observed, it has effectively used historical tactics in conjunction with its media to threaten and intimidate its neighbours.  Similarly, Russian media outlets and Putin have cast Russia as a victim of relentless Western oppression that has sought to deny Russia its place in the world.

Countering the narratives coming from both ISIS and Russia remain challenging in large part due to the current state of conflict and whether it is possible to articulate a strategic narrative in the absence of Western strategy. In Syria, the US has stated the dual aim of seeing the Assad regime removed from power while also ‘degrading and destroying’ ISIS. European members of the coalition have largely focused on bombing ISIS with less to say about Assad. Indeed, the British debate expanding its air campaign over Syria framed the mission more in terms of the duty to allies and to ideals rather than outlining any clear conditions for ‘victory.’

Similarly with Russia, NATO and its member states need to continue to exert pressure on Russia, given the continued unrest in Eastern Ukraine. Similarly, Russian intervention in Syria has also raised the possibility of an inadvertent military contact between NATO and Russia similar to the previous Turkish incident. NATO member states and other Western states’ need to avoid their previous tepid response to Russia’s annexation of another state’s territory and be able to quickly seize the narrative while simultaneously forcefully countering competing ones.

Fundamentally, it is impossible to articulate an effective strategic narrative without an ultimate achievable goal. In this environment it becomes a serious challenge to adequately articulate a strategic narrative of success, let alone sufficiently ‘sell’ the public on the need for overseas intervention. Social media and the Internet are particular areas which need to be better understood and utilised, as this is the main area where counter-narratives are likely to emerge.

This should not be read as a rejection of overseas diplomatic or military action, but instead a call to reframe how we discuss, rationalise and ultimately, narrate these operations. Moreover, it is a plea for a clear-headed, proactive approach to strategy coupled with effective leadership. In doing so Western governments’ can take practical steps against state and non-state adversaries while also articulating what they aim to achieve through these actions and how these actions fit into wider narratives about these states.

Given the rapidly changing media landscape, adaptation is necessary. Strategy and narrative can no longer be treated as separate elements; neglecting one can now effectively condemn the other.

[1] See Lawrence Freedman, The Transformation of Strategic Affairs, IISS Adelphi Paper 379, Routledge: London, 2006.

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What the West should have learned from its long ‘war on terror’

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Peter Apps is Reuters global defence correspondent. He is currently on sabbatical as executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21).

Behind President Barack Obama’s Sunday night speech lies an awkward reality. Ever since 9/11, the West has been fighting two in some ways separate, but deeply intertwined battles against Islamist militancy.

One — to protect the West from attack — has actually gone remarkably well. The other, however — to shape events in the Middle East and surrounding regions and push back radical militant groups — has been something of a disaster. Somehow, those two campaigns must be reconciled if groups like Islamic State and its ideology are to be defeated.

Last week’s shooting at a San Bernardino, California, special needs center was the deadliest jihadist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11. In all, such post-9/11 attacks have killed 45 people: a series of senseless deaths, yet a relatively small number considering the level of concern and attention paid to the topic.

The vast majority of those attacks appear to have been homegrown plots, albeit in many cases inspired and sometimes carried out by those in direct contact with militant groups elsewhere in the world.

Why have there been so few attacks? There are several reasons, including sheer distance and air travel controls that make it hard for any foreign assailants to get themselves into position. Additionally, the U.S. Muslim population remains well-integrated, particularly compared to Europe; law enforcement efforts have been massive and relatively effective; and strikes overseas have disrupted plots — as has the incompetence of the militants themselves.

And much of it, current and former security officials concede, comes down to luck.

What the Paris attacks showed, though, was the last decade of war in the Middle East coming home to roost. Those attacks may have been largely carried out by European-born or resident attackers, but the planning had clear links to Syria — and with the continent awash with refugees from Middle East war zones, stopping a handful of militants from slipping through the net is all but impossible. That’s much less true in the United States and Britain, both of which can control borders much more easily.

Simply protecting the West and letting the Middle East burn is not really an option. Many of the West’s actions over the last decade and a half, however, have made matters worse.

In Iraq and Libya in particular, we used military force to dismantle dictators, with no good alternative to fill the gap. In Syria, the West did even worse by encouraging the opposition to rise up against President Bashar al-Assad without backing them sufficiently to finish the job. The resulting instability provided the perfect environment for Islamic State to thrive.

The result has been devastating — a nine-fold increase in deaths worldwide from militant attacks, almost all of them concentrated in a relatively small number of countries across the Middle East and Africa.

Yet the situation isn’t necessarily as bad as many think it is. Yes, Islamic State still controls a disconcerting amount of Iraq and Syria. Its expansion, however, has largely been halted as a result of airstrikes and efforts by local forces. As a result, it has become much harder for the group to maintain its narrative of invincibility, particularly as it begins to be pushed back in Iraq, in particular.

With the exception of Islamic State and its urban strongholds around Raqqa and Mosul, Islamist groups have had remarkably little success making serious territorial inroads around major cities. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has never managed to hold serious urban ground for more than a handful of hours. Nor has Boko Haram in Nigeria or the various groups in Pakistan — who so brutally terrorized Mumbai in 2008 and who hit targets in their own country even more often.

Those states might have their weaknesses, but today they are more urbanized than at any point in history. For now at least, their governments have the ability to hold the cities, and their populations seem to have little appetite for Islamist militant rule. The endless attacks have a high human cost — and it’s almost impossible to stop militants infiltrating the target-rich cities — but total takeover seems unlikely.

For the United States and its allies, simply degrading Islamic State to the extent that it could no longer hold major towns would be a success. That, though, will take time — not least because the ethnic Sunni populations of places like Mosul and Raqqa would rather take their chances with Islamic State than live under — and risk recriminations by — the Shiite-dominated governments in Baghdad and Damascus. Persuading them otherwise will not be easy.

There is one country in which outside intervention has achieved such results, however — Somalia, where local African forces, backed by U.S. strikes and intelligence, have pushed Al Shabaab militants first from Mogadishu and now from wider swathes of territory.

The strategy Obama outlined on Sunday is very much in that model. Yes, there will now be small numbers of U.S. special operations forces on the ground in Syria as well as Iraq. In both cases, however, the plan is to build local capacity. If the last 15 years have shown anything, it is that larger Western interventions can be less effective. Everyone knows they will one day leave, so it’s hard to achieve lasting effects.

On that front, targeted air strikes should help. The West may be lousy at long-term strategy, but their militaries are really good at destroying structures and systems. In Iraq and Libya, that’s probably done more harm than good, but it augers badly for Islamic State’s hope of becoming an actual functioning state.

To build on that strategy, though, you need a functioning state in areas that Islamic State would otherwise control. That’s still a long way away — particularly in Syria, where regional and global powers have long been fueling the conflict by picking sides based on wider geopolitical and ideological disagreements.

What binds the two interlocking battles against militancy — to stop attacks in the West and stabilize the current conflict areas — comes down to the same thing: integration.

By that, I do not necessarily mean cultural integration — although that is unquestionably important. I mean that the populations from which potential militants are drawn — be they disenfranchised groups in Iraq and Syria, Muslims in America and Europe — feel that they get something back from the nation-state they reside in.

In the United States and Europe, that is still not that difficult. Even relatively ill-integrated new migrant populations get plenty back in terms of benefits, opportunities and the rule of law. After all, that’s why many came in the first place.

In countries like Iraq, Nigeria and most particularly Syria, rebuilding that social contract is going to be much, much harder. It will require unpleasant compromises and dealing with people the United States really, really doesn’t like. But it is not impossible. Building those structures needs to be at the heart any truly effective strategy.

There will still, of course, be fanatics who will need to be robustly tracked down and neutralized. But that is a much more manageable problem.

It will not be easy — not least because the West and its allies are themselves often ineffective, transparently hypocritical and capable of huge mistakes. In general, though, both it and the globalized world it has created remain much more appealing places to live than anything Islamic State or its allies have to offer.

This article first appeared on Reuters on December 7th, 2015. 

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Why America Should Take Mideast Refugees


Kate West Moran is a writer and commentator on Middle East affairs.

Baghdad, March 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom. U.S. troops have entered the country to “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.” More than a decade later the rumors of WMDs have been long debunked and Saddam Hussein is dead, but terrorism thrives in Iraq, and the Iraqi people are by no means free.

With the deposing of Saddam Hussein and the dismantling of the national army in the beginning of the 21st century, the existing governmental structures in Iraq were fractured and weak. The resultant manifestation of security and governance vacuums, combined with the country’s fragile social fabric largely due to a long-simmering conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims, took on an even greater fragility. Groups began vying for power and a civil war erupted. Ultimately it was within the resulting power vacuum that al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) came to prominence, and reached its operational peak in 2007. The group then expanded in 2011 to become the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). As a result, there has been a mass exodus of citizens fleeing the Middle East due to violence and persecution over the last five years.

Why is it that despite a robust military campaign in Iraq and billions of dollars in aid money allocated to grassroots NGOs, that our efforts to root out terrorism have failed? How is it that Iraq became the head of the snake that ultimately morphed into the Islamic State? And why is it that despite hindsight being 20/20, we cannot seem to understand that we helped create the group that is now the region’s most dangerous and powerful non-state actor? Ultimately, how is this history tied to the question of refugees, and the extent to which they represent a threat to U.S. national security?

Whether or not we want to acknowledge it, the facts are definitive. We were party to the creation  of the power vacuum that enabled militant groups in the Middle East to come to power, and that have displaced millions in the years since the start of the Syrian civil war. Thus, it is our responsibility to seek a just and sustainable resolution to the refugee crisis.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, many American politicians have denounced the Obama administration’s policy of pursuing ISIS directly in Syria rather than focusing on terrorist threats closer to home and subsequently sought to curb the flow of Iraqis and Syrians into the United States. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted, by a margin of 289-137, in favor of the “SAFE Act,” a bill that will tighten restrictions on resettlement of refugees from the Middle East. The fear is that the Islamic State could seek to use refugees in a Trojan horse scenario; infiltrating the refugee community and using  them as a front to enter the country. They could then proceed to carry out mass attacks in major population centers like D.C. and New York.

There are several issues with this theory. First, none of the Paris attackers were refugees, nor were any of them Syrian. The passport belonging to a refugee and found near the body of the one of the attackers who was killed by Paris police, was proven to be a forged document; another individual was apprehended in the Balkans for carrying the same passport. Secondly, it would be far easier (and more expedient) for Islamic State militants to radicalize an American-born citizen, or to send a European national on a plane to carry out attacks in the U.S., than it would be for them to take the time and effort to navigate the red tape involved in refugee resettlement.

The current vetting process for refugees and asylum-seekers is upwards of 18 months; in many cases, it can take as long as two years. In those two years, the risk of radicalization in a refugee camp is fairly substantial; by drawing out the process unnecessarily, we are increasing the opportunity for Daesh to increase its capacity by recruiting new fighters for its ranks, and alienating them from the West. The vetting and resettlement process for refugees is far more stringent than for any other individual seeking to come to the United States. The increased attention on this community vis-à-vis preventing a “9/11 2.0” is illogical at best and damaging at worst.

The rejection of Middle Eastern refugees—who are fleeing the region due to violence and terror carried out by these militant groups—is American hypocrisy at its finest. Accepting these vulnerable individuals is not just the “right” thing to do; it is also the smart thing. While no vetting process is 100% guaranteed there is substantial evidence to suggest that our continued marginalization of refugees and discrimination against Muslims in general will fuel radicalization and strengthen Daesh’s appeal. Fearmongering campaigns, Islamophobia, ignorance and ultimately rejecting refugees inadvertently positions ISIS as a potential alternative for individuals who feel isolated from their communities. We are essentially forcing them to seek an identity elsewhere by denying refugees, and Muslims in general, the title of legitimate Americans. They will seek to find an identity and belonging  elsewhere, and in some cases, this identity lies with the Islamic State’s ideology. When we reject Muslims, they too will reject us. When we shun refugees, they too will shun us.

We cannot exact collective punishment on an entire community, simply because of the actions of a few. We cannot fall into accepting Islamophobia as the norm, nor of treating refugees and Muslim Americans like a scourge on our nation. We must welcome them, not just because America is a country founded by immigrants, but because how we choose to act in the coming months and years will determine our legacy—not just in the Middle East, but on an international scale.

We can choose to lead with moral courage and compassion, and conduct our national security in an informed manner, or we can choose to close our borders, shut out refugees, and send them running into the arms of our shared enemy. Our reaction to refugees will help determine if Daesh can prosper, or will be defeated by our defiance of their expectations. By welcoming refugees, embracing Muslims as valued citizens, and promoting a truly multicultural society, we transcend their narratives of hate and enmity. That is the America we must be, if we are to see Daesh defeated and forge for ourselves the legacy we so desperately seek.

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Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, nongovernmental, nonpartisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

After Paris, Islamic State war enters deadly new stage

A welcome sign along the Beirut-Damascus highway (Paul Keller).
A welcome sign along the Beirut-Damascus highway (Paul Keller).

Peter Apps is Reuters global defence correspondent. He is currently on sabbatical as executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21).
In some ways, the fact Islamic State put such effort into attacking the European mainland is a perverse sign of weakness. At the same time, though, it shows the conflict entering a new phase that brings with it a much greater chance of attacks on the West.

Unlike the original Al Qaeda, IS and the precursor groups behind it had always been much more focused on the Middle East. While Osama bin Laden prioritised fighting the “far enemy” — the United States and its Western allies — Islamic State’s entire purpose for existence was to carve out territory to create its caliphate.

For my of last year, it appeared to be being remarkably successful in that goal, seizing towns and cities across swathes of Iraq and Syria. It was also remarkably effective in attracting and creating new affiliates, from pre-existing militant groups in Libya and Afghanistan to forging an alliance with Nigeria’s Boko Haram.

To maintain its momentum, though, it desperately needs to be able to maintain that “winning” narrative. Even when pushed back elsewhere, it has always been quick to throw resources into producing a high-profile victory — for example, the seizure of the historic town of Palmrya earlier this year — to distract attention from difficulties and defeats elsewhere.

Recent weeks have in fact been amongst the toughest for Islamic Stake in its short history.

High profile losses include UK-born Islamic State executioner Mohammed Emwasi — widely known as “Jihadi John” — whose own death in a US drone strike was announced by British and American officials only hours before the Paris attack. On Saturday, a Pentagon’s announcement that the group’s Libya chief had been killed in the strike was entirely overshadowed.

Also on Friday, Kurdish forces backed by US airstrikes ousted IS
from the northern Iraqi town of Sirjar. Isabel Coles, the excellent Reuters correspondent in the region, described it as “one of the most significant counter-attacks since the militants swept through… last year”.

No one, of course, noticed. By attacking France — and probably bringing down a Russian airliner over Egypt on October 31 — the group has reframed its story and ambitions..

As with Al Qaeda, it is always difficult to tell how much direct leadership is exercised from the centre of IS. But either by accident or design, IS has now made showcasing its ability to strike at the West and other external enemies an essential part of its image.

The Paris and possible Russian airliner attack were not the only attacks outside the immediate combat zone. Thursday saw a suicide bombing in the Lebanese capital Beirut that killed 43.

These attacks will almost certainly supercharge foreign military intervention in the region, most particularly from Russia and France but also the United States. There, though, it gets a lot more complicated.

Foreign military action alone is never going to be enough to defeat Islamic State. As I wrote earlier this year, many regional experts believe the group will only be pushed out of the areas it currently controls when the local populations — mostly Sunnis — feel safer and more secure under the currently Shi’ite governments in Baghdad and Damascus.

Any further uptick in fighting — particularly if it comes with further heightened ethnic tension — may only serve to increase the exodus of Syrians in particular fleeing to Europe.

The colossal majority of migrants, of course, have nothing at all to do with Islamic State — indeed, the dislike of them and life under their rule is one of the principal reasons people are fleeing.

The problem, of course, is that it is virtually impossible to detect the relative handful of potential Islamic State attackers who may be infiltrating as part of that group.

Even many of the hundreds or more European Muslims who have gone to fight for Islamic State and then quietly returned, some security experts suspect, are as sick of the war as everyone else and pose little use genuine threat. Indeed, some argue, their support and intelligence they provide may prove key in the battle to come.

The danger, though, is that the aftermath of the Paris attack in particular just serves to deepen the divide in Europe between Muslim populations — both established and new migrants — and everyone else.

So far, the signs are mixed at best, with the attack in Paris already prompting the Polish government to get back on its pledge to take Syrian migrants. On the other side of the political agenda, there are calls to somehow avoid discussing the attack and migrant issues together for fear of worsening divisions.

That doesn’t really work, I’d argue — the attack and much of the migrant crisis, after all, were birthed in the same conflict. The current conflagration in the Middle East now includes Europe, albeit with only sporadic attacks and much more limited casualties that within the primary war zone itself.

Stirring up sectarian divisions, after all — whether between Muslims and non-Muslims or Shi’ite and Sunni — is at the core of what Islamic State is all about.

Further attacks on the West — including potentially the United States — would certainly help the group maintained its narrative of success. But it also needs to avoid significant losses in Iraq and Syria and by its new affiliates in Libya, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

Those trying to defeat IS need to craft their own narrative. That means winning real victories on the ground — both in Syria and Iraq — and stopping as many terror attacks as possible. It means highlighting victories and avoid letting the militants dictate the storyline as they have so far.

Most importantly, it means creating an inclusive enough environment in both Europe and the region that moderate and even not so moderate Sunnis do not find themselves utterly alienated.

That won’t be easy — not least because so far those supposedly fighting IS have often been more focused on a very real rivalries based on geopolitics or ideology. Neither Sunni Gulf states nor Shi’ite rulers in Iran and Syria dare lets the other dictate events . Russian and Western leaders have desperately entrenched opinions over the future of Assad that go to the heart of their different worldviews and much wider stand-off.

The more dangerous Islamic State appears, however, the more likely those differences can be at least temporarily overcome. With any luck, this weekend’s international conference on Syria in Vienna and G20 in Turkey will be the start of that process.

The last week has been the group’s most successful when it comes to grabbing the global agenda. They might also be its most devastating miscalculation.

This article was originally posted on Reuters.com on 14 November 2015.

The war in Afghanistan has so far cost $33,000 per Afghan


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Peter Apps is the executive director of PS21 and a veteran reporter. He tweets @pete_apps

Fourteen years old this month, the West’s war in Afghanistan had all but vanished from the headlines. Even before the fall of Kunduz this week, however — the first provincial capital to be taken by the Taliban in more than a decade — it was clear that all was not going well.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that United States and allied officials were reviewing White House plans to scale down NATO troop numbers in Afghanistan to several hundred by the end of next year, from some 10,000 now. A reduction on that scale, they apparently worry, could leave the door open for not just a Taliban recovery, but also significant inroads by elements of Islamic State.

Like the Russians before them, NATO appears to have squandered lives, resources and a surprising degree of goodwill — and with little left to show for it.

Even the most cursory examination reveals phenomenal waste. According to calculations at the end of last year by the Financial Times and others, the war had already cost almost $1 trillion (less than the $1.7 trillion spent on Iraq, but still staggering). The official responsible for scrutinizing spending, U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John Sopko, says that, adjusted for inflation, efforts at development in Afghanistan have now cost more than the Marshall Plan to reconstruct post-World War Two Europe.

Divided equally among Afghanistan’s 30 million citizens, the trillion dollars amounts to some $33,000 per head. That would be more than $2,300 per year, per person spread across the 14 years of the war. (Although, in reality, the lion’s share of spending has come in the last seven years of the Obama administration.) Annual per capita Afghan income in 2014 was only $670.

According to SIGAR, the United States has no real idea, even now, how many Afghan troops, health centers or schools its money has backed. The money is almost certainly going to pay for personnel who never existed. (SIGAR’s reports and comments make depressing but fascinating reading — a must for anyone who really wants to understand what has gone wrong in Afghanistan.)

The simple truth, I would argue, is that we tend to look at the Afghan war in entirely the wrong way, and because of that the United States has spent its money poorly, too. The United States, British and broader Western media outlets have focused their coverage on the Western soldier experience.

Even now, if you told most Americans or Brits to consider the “real tragedy” of the Afghan war, they would think of dead and maimed NATO personnel, of their widows and children. But that’s like my view of the Sri Lanka war being entirely colored just because I broke my neck in it (which of course it is).  It’s understandable, even unavoidable — but it misses the bigger picture.

According to fatalities monitoring website icasualties.org, 3495 coalition soldiers have been killed since 2001 — 2364 Americans, 453 Brits and 678 others. Brown University’s Cost of War Project, however, estimates that a total of 92,000 Afghans were killed over the same period. At least 26,000 of those, they believe, were civilians.

The real fight that counted was always the struggle for control between the government in Kabul, the various regional power centers and the Taliban. It’s a fight that had been ongoing since the Russian withdrawal in 1989.

The hope in Afghanistan was that several years of tough action by Western troops would break the Taliban and shape a country that could be handed back to the Afghans. The reality, though, seems to have been that all sides knew Western troops would eventually leave.

Exact breakdowns of where the money went in Afghanistan are difficult to make — not least because Western personnel rotating through the country often failed to keep proper records, according to SIGAR. But it is clear that a very large amount — probably the vast majority — went to the Western military effort. According to the Washington think tank the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, by 2014 the war cost $2.1 million for every U.S. service member on the ground.

Huge amounts of equipment — from mine-hardened patrol vehicles to new patterns of camouflage clothing — were rushed into production. By 2010, a U.S. or NATO soldier suffering catastrophic injuries in Afghanistan could expect a better standard of medical care than that available at any major Western city trauma center.

For all the talk of strengthening the Afghan forces, their kit was always much more basic — troops without body armor, often in civilian-style pickup trucks.

This weekend, the New York Times reported Afghanistan’s most decorated helicopter pilot complaining that new U.S.-delivered attack helicopters were all but useless — unable to reach the mountaintops often occupied by Taliban, often suffering jammed guns and other mechanical failures. According to SIGAR, Afghan security forces are seriously lacking in cold-weather gear — a must for soldiers based in mountainous regions where winter can last for seven months.

Several commanders, particularly U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, tried to focus on building Afghan capacity and winning hearts and minds. For most of the troops and more junior leaders in warfare, however, Afghan forces were rarely more than a distraction, danger or joke. Given the number of times Afghan troops turned on NATO members, that’s hardly surprising. And while the New York Times might only just have discovered the alarming habit of Afghan forces having sex with teenage boys, the phrase “man love Thursday” had long been the topic of horrified conversation among Western soldiers not easily shocked.

The problem, though, is that if Western troops don’t stay in Afghanistan forever — and they probably will not — the Afghan forces are almost the only show in town. And if Afghan forces can’t hold, power will be transferred to the kind of warlords who preceded them, Taliban or otherwise.

Even the work done on strengthening the Afghan government may simply have created something unsustainable. SIGAR estimates that the Afghan government costs $8 to $10 billion a year to run — but can raise no more than $2 billion itself in revenue. That leaves it more dependent on outside support than probably any other nation.

It’s not all bad news. Even SIGAR — never prone to put a gloss on things unnecessarily — points to reduced maternal mortality rates, at least modestly improved access to education, and a new government under President Ashraf Ghani that seems genuinely keen to assert its authority and tackle corruption.

The U.S. forces that remain there may still be able to make a difference. Indeed, it is easy to forget now that many, many fewer — only a handful of special operators and intelligence agency paramilitaries — worked with local groups to oust the Taliban from much of the country within weeks after September 11.

Their departure, though, would not mean the end of the fight for Afghanistan. It might only be the beginning.

This article originally appeared on Reuters.com on October 1, 2015. 

PS21 is a non-governmental, non-ideological, non-national organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

PS21 Report: A Conversation with Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer

Ian Bremmer discusses the future of American foreign relations at a PS21 discussion in July.
Ian Bremmer discusses the future of American foreign relations at a PS21 discussion in July.

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  • American foreign policy too cautious and without a clear strategy
  • US overreaction to 9/11 means it will overreact to other events, but with a different global standing
  • Ultimately, foreign policy leaders must choose a path and stick to it
  • An independent America that is diplomatic but realistic seems the most logical option

On July 14, Project for Study of the 21st Century held a discussion with Ian Bremmer on the future of American foreign policy. Ian Bremmer is the president of political risk firm Eurasia Group and the author of Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World.

Please feel free to quote from this report citing PS21. You can watch a video of the discussion here.

The United States has lacked a clear foreign policy strategy since the fall of the Soviet Union. Instead, risk aversion and overreaction have dominated American attitudes towards overseas threats.

Bremmer: I still don’t think [the current administration] has a strategy. And I don’t blame just Obama for that. I think it’s really been since the end of the Cold War. I think we’ve been both risk averse, and then over-reactive. And if we had a strategy, it’s those two things. And I would argue that the single biggest damage that’s been done to the United States in terms of our opposition in the world, since the Soviet Union collapsed, has been our massive overreaction to 9/11. So it was self-inflicted.

When I travel around the world and I meet with the foreign ministers of all our allies, they all say, “we don’t know what you guys want. We don’t know if you’re committed to us, we don’t know if you’re engaged.” And that obviously is going to lead to an awful lot of hedging strategies.

Especially in the context of a changing international environment, the self-inflicted harm of massive overreaction may jeopardize U.S. global standing.

Bremmer: At least after 9/11, that massive overreaction which cost so many lives–our own and of course so many more outside the United States–it cost so much money, it was so counterproductive in so many ways, at least that happened in an environment where the United States was very strong, and where the transatlantic relationship was very strong, and Europe was pretty coherent, and the Russians were somewhat oriented to support us, and the Chinese were pretty small. And, most of those things don’t hold as much now. So, I’m very worried about the next thing that we massively overreact to.

And I’m not saying terrorism, it could be cyber, it could be climate, it could be anything, it could be MRSA, I mean who knows? But there will be something and we’ll massively overreact to it, but we’ll overreact to it in a radically different geopolitical position. And I worry that in the absence, in the continued absence of coherent foreign policy strategy, that that’s going to hurt. And it’s not just going to hurt for like a year. That could fundamentally damage the long-term position that we have in the world.

So it’s clear that U.S. strategy has to change. Bremmer offers three distinct foreign policy outlooks that the United States might adopt in an effort to improve its position on the world stage.

Bremmer: The first choice, Indispensable America, is the one that we’re most used to. It’s the idea that America may not want to be the world’s policeman, but if we do not lead, no one else will… Furthermore, it’s not just about that. It’s about assertively supporting American-led global institutions, American-led alliances, and promoting our values internationally.

The idea behind Moneyball is that…instead of focusing on American values, run America more like a corporation. Look at the value that you’re going to get for the American voter on the basis of what you extend internationally. So the U.S. will have a very assertive international policy, but it’s going to really spend the vast majority of its effort in the places where we’re going to get the biggest return.

And Independent America basically says, look. Those first two strategies sound great. But if you are not prepared to actually live up to them, don’t say them. In other words, don’t tell the Ukrainians you’re going to support them when you’re not. Don’t say that Assad must go when you have no actual policy to make it happen. Do not say that ISIS must be destroyed when all you plan on doing is containing it, because you’re going to lose a lot of credibility and you’re going to hurt your alliances. Instead, recognize that you’re going to use 21st century levers of coercive diplomacy, which are much more unilateral in their application.

Although he encourages readers (and politicians) to draw their own conclusions, Bremmer himself chooses Independent America, albeit reluctantly, as the most logical approach for U.S. foreign policy.

Bremmer: If I wanted to be really cute and cheap, and something I don’t say in the book because it’s too cute and too cheap, I would say sort of Indispensable America really appeals to your heart, Moneyball America really appeals to your wallet, and Independent America really appeals to your brain.

Ultimately, I chose Independent America, which I hate. It does not feel in any way attractive to me… [But] if you have to pick a strategy you’re really going to implement over the long-term, not just for two years or four years, Independent looks more feasible to work. Because you can’t just say that you like it, you have to say you’re actually going to adhere to it over time.

The other reason I picked it is a challenge to the people running, and to their advisors, to say “look guys, this is the best I think that you guys can do, please convince me you’re wrong.” And, at the very least, have conversations like this around the country and with the media and the rest, and say, this is our country. Please talk about this, debate. I don’t care which one you pick, I really don’t. I just want us to not refuse to have the conversation, as we have for a long time.

Independent America is not Isolationism.

Bremmer: It’s clear that millennials in this country have been turned off by and disgusted by the [political] process because they’re skeptical when a corporation tells them what to believe. But they don’t believe in a corporation. It’s a transactional thing–you buy a product, you don’t expect anything. But from America, millennials expect more. They believe that we’re citizens of this country and we want our politicians to do more than just sell us a product. We want our politicians to have a level of authenticity and we feel like they’re failing us. That’s the thing I think Independent America would really try to stand up for, and that’s one thing that makes Independent so different from Isolationism, frankly.

The relationship between Washington and Beijing will not have very much to do at all with U.S. policy, and the best we can hope for is that Chinese markets will become so deeply vested in the success of the American economy that alignment is inevitable.

Bremmer: No matter what the U.S. does over the next 10 years, the extent to which the Chinese succeed or fail, and the extent to which we have a problematic or more positive trajectory to the relationship, is overwhelmingly going to be determined on the basis of domestic dynamics in China, not by what we do.

When we say that we want the Chinese to play by our rules, we’re not saying we want them to play by our rules domestically in China because we don’t feel that we can really affect that. Here we go to Hillary Clinton in a classic Moneyball statement, which is, “It’s really hard to lecture your banker on human rights.” I thought when she said that as Secretary of State, that was immensely powerful. I can’t remember the last time a Secretary of State said something that I so intrinsically agree with.

The best way in that context to get the Chinese to really align would be to recognize that you really want the Chinese to be so freaking invested up to their necks in the U.S. that they desperately want us to succeed and like them. And that’s a really important thing, I mean it’s the age old economic–it’s not really new, it’s just an application–that if someone owes you a dollar, it’s their problem. If they owe you a billion dollars, it’s your problem. We really would like China to have it be their problem, that we want them so much at stake with the United States succeeding.

On Russia and Ukraine, Independent America would shoulder the heavy-lifting onto countries closer to the problem.

Bremmer: I think what an Independent view on Russia/Ukraine would be, this kind of sucks, but: it’s Ukraine. And ultimately, we are living in a world where we’re going to have to convince countries that are closer to these issues to do a lot more… Independent America would say, “your problem guys,” and we’ll still do unilateral stuff. If we find someone we can drone, our Special Forces will get rid of them, but ultimately if you want to destroy it, you’re going to have to deliver. The only way you’re going to convince them to really do it, if at all, is when they recognize the Americans aren’t going to do the heavy-lift here.

Despite the mistakes of the current administration, it is important to remember that foreign policy isn’t easy.

Bremmer: I always check myself when I find that people are doing a bad job because it’s really easy to just criticize. And I mean, I’ve got to tell you, when Kerry first came in, he wasn’t the first choice of Obama for Secretary of State. He thought he should be President himself, he did Israel-Palestine because he wanted to do something huge, not because it was doable. He wanted a Nobel for himself…

A lot of people who heard me as I was annoyed at mistakes he made on Egypt and on Syria, and in lack of communication with the administration around Russia and Ukraine, were really surprised when I came out and gave him as much credit as I have on Iran. And it’s because yeah, try to put yourself in this guy’s position. How many weeks was he spending in Vienna trying to get this done? He actually had an Omani minister working backchannel to get him with the Supreme Leader in Iran, which very few people could do. And I mean, at the end of the day, yeah I would’ve liked a few extra things for the Americans on the nuclear side. But, when you really try to put yourself in his shoes, and that’s incredibly hard for any of us to do–myself included–I have to say it seems a good deal done. It’s a win multilaterally, it’s useful geopolitically. And I have to applaud Kerry for doing it.

The absence of one huge-looming enemy could be what is responsible for some foreign policy failings that the U.S. has experienced.

Bremmer: You know, tremendous feeling of safety, and then suddenly having that shaken. The incredibly short time-horizon that we have, both as very individualist entrepreneurial Americans in the market cycle driven by capitalism—every quarter we want our returns, we never relax, right? Take it easy, more sustainable, more balanced, right? That’s got to be part of it. Part of it is an electoral cycle, as well, that makes it just more difficult in the absence of one huge-looming enemy, which we had the Soviet period. The Brits have much healthier response to how one deals with a terrorist threat. They have other problems. They have a panopticon that’s developed in their country and that’s an issue too. We’re getting there, but that’s technology, not just the U.S.

Bremmer also talks about his role as an American in highlighting political situations around the world.

Bremmer: I own, I don’t run it thankfully, the largest political risk outlet, right? And I think that being an American in that position is actually an active problem. It’s a challenge in that I’m trying to talk about the world, and I’m highly cognizant of the fact that that puts me in a cultural context of exceptionalism. It makes people around the world not trust that I’m actually saying things that are sort of politically “objective” analysis. Another Westerner that is going to tell us the way we should be running ourselves. So, I’m highly aware of that. And then I write this jingoistic claptrap… And I’m writing it because I’m concerned about the position that American foreign policy has.

Report by Rhea Menon. Transcript by Amanda Blair and Christopher Stephens.

An insider’s view of government: a conversation with Ari Ratner

On September 4, 2015, Gwenn Laine and Arie Kuipers interviewed PS21 board member and founder of Inside Revolution Ari Ratner about his time in the US government. Watch the video to find out more.

I think the biggest thing I learned in government is what we call the powerlessness of power… When you work in government you fairly quickly discover that often the emperor has no clothes, and even more scary, sometimes you are the emperor and you have no clothes.

Two World-Changing Deals: Greece and Iran

A demonstration outside the Greek parliament protesting the Greek accord, July 2015.
A demonstration outside the Greek parliament protesting the Greek accord, July 2015.

Jack Goldstone is an expert on revolutions at the Woodrow Wilson Center and George Mason University and a global fellow at PS21. He is the author of “Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction.” Follow him on Twitter at @jgoldsto.

After endless, and sometimes seemingly hopeless, negotiations, diplomats have produced two new multinational deals that go a long way toward righting what’s been going wrong in the world: one on nuclear development in Iran and the second to keep Greece in the euro.

Both of these deals provide better outcomes than failed negotiations would have. They demonstrate that dedicated diplomacy can still achieve positive solutions within an integrated global system that is more or less still functioning. The Iran nuclear deal announced Tuesday is good for everyone, even — despite the vituperation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — for Israel. Today, the world has an angry, isolated, and very nearly nuclear-armed Iran. That Iran has been dangerous and untrustworthy and therefore was put under strong sanctions by the U.N. and U.S. That is not a situation that can be maintained indefinitely. Under the status quo, Iran will eventually get nuclear capabilities, and will be ever more angry and isolated when it does. That is not a good outcome for Israel or the region or the world.

Under the new deal — although not all details are released yet — Iran will become less isolated as sanctions are ended. In return, Iran will be forced to earn trust by limiting its stockpile of nuclear bomb-capable materials and opening its nuclear program to international inspections. The deal will change the status quo by making Iran less isolated and less likely to achieve nuclear weapons capability within the next decade. That is a better outcome than the status quo.

Of course, the deal could still go badly wrong. One of the first things needed immediately now is to start negotiating cooperation between Iran and Saudi Arabia against the Islamic State. The Iran-Saudi enmity must be managed and reduced to limit hostilities in the region. If the Shi’a-Sunni split continues to polarize the region, Iran will want to accelerate its conventional arms programs and its nuclear research so that when the deal lapses Iran can leap to become a nuclear power. So it is vital that the next 10 years see conventional arms agreements and peacemaking to reduce Iran’s perceived security needs for nuclear arms.

Iran will not abandon its desire to be an influential great power. But that can be useful as a counter-balance to Russia in the Middle East (one of America’s original reasons to ally with the Shah of Iran decades ago). And since Iran’s goal of sanctions relief is to rebuild its economy, and a major war will return it to isolation and undermine that economy, we can hope that Iran can be induced to undertake a peacemaker’s role in the region, rather than a troublemaker’s role, once the deal is concluded. Hardliners in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard may attempt to use incoming funds for their own, less noble, purposes but President Rouhani—who campaigned on economic revitalization by getting sanctions lifted—has serious political incentive to ensure the economy is not disrupted by conflict. Continued work by diplomats on implementing the deal, to ensure it meets its goals, is vital. We cannot pat ourselves and our colleagues on the back and walk away. The deal is a starting point—and only that—for improving security and peace in the Middle East and needs vigorous follow-through. Yet it is a vital starting point and improves the odds for better outcomes in the next few years.

The deal on Greece was also vital. The European Union remains the best hope for showing the world that nationalism can be overcome and that diverse peoples can coordinate their political and economic policies. If there is ever to be global integration and government, the EU has to lead the way. So showing that even when facing a crisis the EU can function to preserve unity is enormously valuable in itself. What lesson would have been sent to Ukraine or Moldova, or to Turkey or even China, about dealing with the EU if the union would turn on one of its own and expel them for failing to live up to certain economic standards? The EU has always moved forward by accepting countries that did not meet its desired standards for democracy or economic stability (going back to Spain and Portugal) and urging them forward and helping them reach higher.

Moreover, as the U.S. government found with Lehman Brothers, the consequences of allowing even a small piece of a deeply interconnected financial structure to fail can be enormous and much greater than expected. Who knows for sure how the global financial system would have fared if Greek bankruptcy also brought down several German banks or caused a run on emerging market assets? Better to preserve the system than risk a sudden change that, even if small, could be the proverbial straw that break’s the camel’s back.

Will the deal be ideal? Of course not. A sensible deal would include explicit debt relief and a plan to return Greece to economic growth that would restore prosperity. It would include — as the current deal does to some degree — external oversight of Greek’s taxing and spending, which have been riddled with corruption, fraud, and waste. And it would include continued engagement and flexibility to ensure a path to financial health is maintained. In short it would work very much like U.S. Chapter 11 bankruptcy plans, whose goal is not to punish companies that run into financial trouble and cannot meet their obligations, but to make the best use of remaining assets while lifting the burden of unpayable debts, and putting the company on a new path to growth.

The actual deal on Greece is not quite that sound. It has no explicit debt relief (although creditors say they don’t expect to be fully repaid); the external oversight is concentrated on sales of states assets; and there is still a tendency to want to punish Greece for its financial sins, rather than prioritizing easing the suffering of the Greek people. It will be up to the Greek leaders and European leaders to try to nudge the deal in this direction as it is implemented. The U.S can play a role here, educating Europeans about its very successful and flexible bankruptcy programs, explaining why such programs are a good idea and how they work, and suggesting them as an alternative model to “punitive” actions for Greece.

Both these deals are far better than no deals would have been. And they give hope at a time when the world needs so many additional deals — for peace among nations in the South China Sea; for cooperation on global climate change; for refugees and asylum-seekers in Europe; on Cyprus; on South Sudan; on Afghanistan to name just a few.

The diplomats and leaders have now taken the first step in doing their jobs. Let us hope they follow through to make sure that the potential benefits of these deals, so hard-won, are realized.

This piece originally appeared on POLITICO.com on July 14, 2015.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Why Congress Should Accept the Iran Deal: A US Veteran’s Perspective

President Barack Obama delivers an address to a joint session of Congress at the United States Capitol, Sept. 9, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)   This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.
President Barack Obama delivers an address to a joint session of Congress at the United States Capitol, Sept. 9, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson)

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Asha Castleberry is a U.S. National Security Expert and U.S. Army Veteran.  She is an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project (ASP) and a member of the Truman National Security Project Defense Council. She tweets at @ashacastleberry. 

The Iran deal presents a contentious debate on whether the U.S. Congress should ratify the historic agreement.  During its sixty-day review, various stakeholders aggressively attempt to influence the decision.  Amongst all of the key stakeholders that are taking part in this debate, it is very important to learn from the military veteran community.  The veteran community does not want Congress to ruin an unprecedented opportunity that could stop Iran from acquiring their first nuclear bomb.

As a proud U.S. veteran who recently spent two and half years deployed in the Middle East, I completely understand how Iranian aggression continues to be a threat to our national security.  Our country still remembers when our falling soldiers in Iraq lost their lives from asymmetric threats that were supported by Iran.  Currently, Iran remains supportive of proxy groups that are contributing to destabilization in the region.  Countries like Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have every right to be concerned about their security: no one is in denial that Iran is a threat to our national security and our allies in the region.  This is why we cannot afford to ruin the opportunity of stopping Iran from acquiring one of the most dangerous weapons of mankind.

There are many other veterans that agree with my point.  Recently, a letter released by thirty-six retired U.S. generals and admirals  declared that the deal is “the most effective means currently available to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.” Instead of military action, allowing tough diplomacy to take its course will prevent putting soldiers at risk and facing unwarranted negative consequences.

Similar to many other agreements, the deal is not perfect.  One major concern is that the sanction relief will provide more funding for dangerous behavior in the Middle East.  Policy opponents overwhelmingly argue that the sanction relief will empower Iran’s treasury to support state terrorism.  Undoubtedly, some of the money will go towards their destructive foreign policy.  With the economic sanctions, the absence of any agreement enabled Iran to continue funding terrorism and growing its nuclear stockpile.  Continuing on the same glide path of tough economic sanctions will not stop Iran from this behavior. The Iran deal is the only option that will do the exact opposite of stopping Iran from building their first nuclear weapon. Instead, the deal will put the brakes on the buildup of the nuclear program while allowing the U.S. to snap back to its original robust economic sanctions if Iran decides to cheat.

My next point is not to convince Washington that this deal could possibly moderate Iran but to take into account that the country’s current economic failures is transforming Iran’s foreign policy.  Under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s anti-West policies discouraged any hope of the country stopping expansion of their nuclear program. I witnessed this concern at the 2010 nuclear non-proliferation treaty conference at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.  There, I listened to the harsh remarks of then-President Ahmadinejad at the UN General Assembly. President Ahmadinejad’s keynote speech indicated Iran’s resistance to oblige key provisions in the nuclear non-proliferation treaty which reflected a critical low point for the non-nuclear proliferation regime.

Currently, this is not necessarily the case.  Surprisingly, Iran has regained its confidence to work with the non-nuclear proliferation regime. With this deal, Iran is willing to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conduct guaranteed and thorough inspections. This change in Iran’s behavior raises a very important question: what is causing the shift in Iran’s unprecedented nuclear policy decision? Over time, the people of Iran realized that economic prosperity is more important than acquiring a nuclear weapon. The Iranian people decided to vote for a  leader that is willing to engage with Western powers. Iran’s anti-West policies placed them at a complete economic disadvantage, causing rising inflation and a high unemployment rate. The pursuit of economic prosperity was part of President Hassan Rouhani’s 2013 campaign platform. Iran’s economic failures are pressuring the country to generate more opportunities for a growing youth generation.  In doing so, Iran is  eager to fully reintegrate back in the global economy by restoring relations with both regional neighbors and Western powers.

A potential congressional rejection of the Iran Deal will take us a step back from preventing Iran building their first nuclear bomb and create a serious imbalance of power that could generate a nuclear arms race. Also, a congressional rejection will be a huge blow to the international community.  On the world stage, this could possibly deepen the loss of confidence in the U.S. Congress. The U.S. should support this historic decision by joining the non-nuclear proliferation alignment with a congressional ratification that allows us for the first time to comprehensively stop Iran’s from growing its nuclear program.

PS21 is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Roundup: Our top 5 posts on American foreign policy

Washington DC (photo: US Navy)
Washington DC (photo: US Navy)

Compared to the past century and in the midst of a changing world order, the US’ foreign influence is certainly in decline. But there’s no doubt that America will continue to be a major player on the global stage. Take a look at some of our best posts on its foreign policy to learn more.

Assessing the new US national security strategy: Ali Wyne examines the national security strategy introduced by Susan Rice this past winter, what it should have emphasized, and how US foreign policy will change in response to a shifting world order.

Few would deny that the emerging landscape is daunting. The United States must prepare its foreign policy for a world where its economy will no longer be the largest in absolute terms; where disorder may well be an enduring feature of the strategic environment, not a passing aberration; where a dizzying, growing array of nonstate actors exercises ever-growing influence; and where its signature postwar achievement, liberal world order, erodes indefinitely. These novelties do not, though, and need not, support the oft-painted picture of a United States in terminal decline; instead, they reinforce the imperative of strategic adjustment.

What Washington is missing in the Iran deal: Negar Razavi reflects on how the Iran sanctions and recent agreement have affected the Iranian people and asks why no one else in DC is talking about it.

We in the Iranian-American community who have maintained our connections to contemporary Iran cannot afford to ignore what it means for our families and friends inside the country.   As 1.5 or 2nd generation Iranian-Americans, we have lived the painful history of confrontation between the U.S. and Iran in deeply personal ways. And we have watched tensions between these governments reach frightening new levels over the past decade.

As US influence in Asia falters, allies increasingly look to themselves: PS21 executive director Peter Apps looks at US involvement in the midst of shifting power dynamics in Asia.

Washington remains the dominant naval power in Asia even against the backdrop of a growing Chinese fleet. And, crucially, it remains without doubt the single-most important partner for each of its regional allies. Even India, historically dedicated to a “non-aligned” position between East and West, has moved much closer to Washington under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Malabar military exercises will also involve the United States.

But it is a world where American leadership is pulled in multiple different directions. The United States must deter both Russia and China from attacking its treaty allies — and so sparking a major war — without simultaneously antagonizing them so much that conflict becomes more likely.

The Arab Spring and the limits of American power: Ari Ratner explains how Western governments were constrained in their responses to the Arab Spring and subsequent tumult.

Overall, the Arab Spring has played a deeply conflicting role. It brought to the fore a series of challenges that it may have also made more difficult to contend with. Nevertheless, these challenges are now firmly on the agenda. And a new generation— more than half of the Arab world is under the age of 25— is both awakened to them and connected to the wider world in ways not seen, perhaps, since the apex of Arab civilization.

Nevertheless, while the region must rightly retain control over its own fate, there is more that the West can do to help. From the perspective of the US government, the failure to live up to many of our promises— the repeated inability to promptly deliver economic or military assistance, for instance— has weakened our credibility, strained traditional alliances, and limited our ability to influence the situation on the ground.

PS21 Report: Rebuilding Afghanistan — Transparency and oversight in America’s longest war: Finally, check out the report from our discussion with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko, Andy Wright, managing editor of Just Security, and Ian Wallace, senior fellow at New America to learn more about the current state of the country and its future.

Sopko: I feel almost like Dickens in the Tale of Two Cities: “it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times.”

The worst… is that the fighting season — which we are halfway through — has been bloody. The insurgency has taken the fight not only to Kabul and other major cities but also around the country. We still have a problem of narcotics, we still have a problem of corruption. We also have a problem of waning interest by the allies, including the United States.

PS21 Insight: US-Turkey plan to fight ISIS has serious flaws

The crowded Gran bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey (Photo: Moyan Brenn)
The crowded Gran bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey (Photo: Moyan Brenn)

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  • Plan serves US and Turkish national interests at the expense of Syrians
  • Without a common goal, will be impossible for the two countries to work together effectively
  • Turkey’s focus is on fighting the PKK, not ISIS
  • US criticized for going easy on Asad

Last week, Turkey and the US agreed on a plan to train and strengthen Syrian opposition forces fighting the Islamic State. The plan envisions American, Syrian and Turkish forces working together to drive IS forces away from the Syrian-Turkish border and create an “IS-free” zone in northern Syria.

Below are some early conclusions from members and contributors of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21). If you wish to contact any of them directly, please email ps21central@gmail.com. Please credit PS21 if you quote from this report.


Hayat Alvi: Professor of Middle East studies, US Naval War College, and PS21 global fellow.

Rasha Elass: journalist formerly based in Syria and PS21 global fellow.

Milena Rodban: independent geopolitical risk consultant and PS21 global fellow.

Ostensibly, the deal will enable Syrian forces to fight ISIS. But there are doubts as to how effective it will actually be.  

Rodban: The US-Turkey plans to train Syrians first came into play in February, but the plans were repeatedly delayed, until earlier this summer, when the joint program started training fighters in earnest. Recently, it became clear that the program has had an extremely limited success rate, due to high vetting standards. It has yielded only about 60 fighters, some of whom were promptly taken hostage by IS-affiliated groups.

Alvi: The U.S. is in a pathetic state of affairs with regard to the training of the Syrian opposition, reaching only 60 Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters so far… [who are] all in a unit called Division 30…  And, out of that 60, about 8 of them got captured by the Nusra Front (Al Qaeda in Syria), and… were paraded in front of a camera in a Nusra video.  This is a lot of egg on the U.S. face.  Plus, there are countless reports of U.S. airstrikes in Syria resulting in civilian deaths.  Not a good thing for the US…

In recent days, 20+ U.S.-trained FSA fighters – also in Division 30 — have been kidnapped.  One additional US-trained FSA fighter has been killed in fighting in Syria.  These facts are deterring others from joining the US training program.

Civilian deaths resulting from US airstrikes in Syria and Iraq number 450+.

Some have also said that the plan is more about serving American and Turkish interests than fighting ISIS, arguing that it gives Turkey an excuse to re-ignite its war against the PKK and the US to enmesh itself further in the Syrian civil war.

Elass: It’s shortsighted because it lacks a common goal, let alone a long range one. Sure, Turkey and the US agree that the target for this move is Islamic State. But how will this manifest on the ground when Turkey finds that the Kurds, who are a major U.S. ally, are a threat to Turkish sovereignty?

The US and Turkey also disagree on priorities, with the US focused primarily on fighting Islamic State while Turkey continues to reiterate its stance that president Bashar al Assad must go? With the US and Turkey at such odds, how long can their partnership continue before running into a major glitch?

Alvi: The U.S.-Turkey plan to fight ISIS encompasses each country’s respective national interests, which is to be expected.  That’s what states do, they discern and strategize national interests.

For the U.S., the primary focus is to go after ISIS, mainly because of the terror group’s killings of westerners.  The Syrian opposition has criticized this narrow focus, because it does nothing to go after Asad and the Asad regime, and that’s even after Pres. Obama has said that “Asad has to go.”

For Turkey, the primary focus is to ensure that the Kurdish militants — inside ISIS as well as in the PKK — do not attack Turkey.  That red line was broken when the PKK killed 2 Turkish police officers last week.

The fact that Turkey convened a special meeting with NATO indicates that Turkey wants its safety net:  if things get way too out of hand with the Syrian war spillover into Turkey, then it has the option of invoking Article 5 collective defense of NATO members.  That gives Turkey a sense of some security.

Also, the fact that Northern Iraq’s Kurdistan regional government called on the PKK to stop its attacks against Turkey is also an indication that the PKK is indeed provoking trouble in the region.  Turkey has already carried out airstrikes against PKK camps in Northern Iraq.  This is not something Iraq wants, and it recognizes the dangers of PKK provocation.

Rodban: The primary problem with the US-Turkey plan… is that the countries have very different endgames. The US wants to support the Kurds, whom Turkey sees as enemies (given their history with the PKK, etc.). Turkey continues to bomb more Kurd/PKK camps than IS targets in its ongoing campaign against IS. The countries have had strikingly different attitudes towards IS, with Turkey only now really taking the fight against the group more seriously, following attacks on Turkey’s territory, but appearing more committed to using the campaign to strike the PKK, which undermines US desires to hit more IS targets…

Many remain wary of Turkey’s commitment to beating IS- they don’t believe Turkey will do all that’s necessary to defeat the group. PKK leader Cemil Bayik told the BBC that Turkish President Erdogan is protecting IS because he wants IS to keep fighting the PKK, and stalling or rolling back Kurdish gains (which Turkey sees as a threat). This is not just a PKK view. There is enough evidence to suggest Turkey sees the Kurds as their primary enemy, with IS a distant second. While IS remains active, it keeps the attention of the Kurds firmly focused on fighting the terror group, and not the Turkish government, which had been the PKK’s primary target.

(Note: the “Kurds” should not be seen as a united or cohesive entity- the Syrian/Iraqi/Turkish Kurdish groups are distinct, with different capabilities, goals, etc., and some in the PKK are resistant to turning all of their attention away from fighting the Turkish government. Hence recent shootouts with Turkish police/military targets.)

…Allowing the US to launch drones and warplanes from Turkish bases… will make US strikes more effective since the proximity of Turkish bases, particularly Incirlik, in the SW of Turkey, since it’s only an hour away from IS targets in Syria, which will allow the drones and planes to spend more time hitting targets and less time traveling. While US airstrikes may successfully destroy more IS targets, Turkey is likely to continue focusing on striking PKK targets, making it less likely that this campaign will be as comprehensive and integrated as intended. 

With clashing interests, it certainly seems that it will be difficult for the US and Turkey to work together as outlined by the plan. The so-called “IS-free zone” is also a point of contention.

Rodban: Discussion of a proposed “safe zone” in northern Syria, bordering southern Turkey, seems to also have different purposes, depending on whether you’re talking to Turkish or American leaders. Turkey thinks the safe zone will allow refugees living in Turkey to start going home. The Americans dispute that this is the main goal. With disagreements over such major issues, it seems the battle plan is far from comprehensive and certainly not cohesive.

Elass: Although no one is calling it a no-fly zone, in effect that is what it is. By default, Syrian warplanes do not intercept the same air space that the US-led coalition has been using to bombard IS. Now that a stretch of land has been designated by Turkey and the US as a safe zone for Syrians fleeing IS, it is highly unlikely that Syrian warplanes would breach this space. Assad sees himself as a partner in the fight on terrorism, and would therefore not want to be seen as interfering with these efforts. Iran, which arguably has greater say these days than Assad does in Syria’s military operations, is also now unlikely to throw a wrench in the US-Turkey plan.

A no-fly zone has long been called for by Syrian opposition and many humanitarian aid providers. Now that there is a de facto no-fly zone, it might make sense to create more of them in other parts of Syria.

While the US and Turkey have competing interests, it will be difficult for them to trust each other in the war against the Islamic State.

Rodban: While Turkey’s attention is split between the PKK and IS, the campaign is likely to have limited success. In Turkey, public opinion supports the campaign against IS, and less support for focusing too much on the PKK, especially following the deadly IS attacks on Turkish soil. Yet there is still opposition to Turkish boots on the ground in Syria. The US will need to either find a way to refocus Turkey on the fight against IS, which is unlikely unless IS strikes deep in the heart of Turkey and throws popular support overwhelmingly behind a campaign against the brutal group, or realize that the US does not really have an equal partner in this fight.  

Alvi: As long as the U.S. stays narrowly focused on attacking ISIS and Nusra Front in Syria, and does nothing substantive about bringing Asad and the Asad regime to justice, public opinion in the region will not view U.S. intentions and actions as serious and sincere with regard to preventing / ending genocide.  Turkey, which is the United States’ partner in the fight against ISIS and other elements in Syria, also shares that opinion of the U.S.  That alone speaks volumes.