Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

Iraq: Allah Have Mercy

by Steven A. Cook Monday, June 30, 2014
Iraqi Shi'ite politician Ahmed Chalabi (Saad Shalash/Courtesy Reuters).

It seems impossible, but it is true.  President Barack Obama was elected to the highest office in the land in 2008 in part because after five years in Iraq, he promised the American people that he would not “do stupid stuff.”  He is about to do precisely that in Iraq.  It is not just the “I-don’t-know-whether-to-laugh-or-cry” feeling I had when I learned the news that Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk had met with Ahmed Chalabi the week before last to discuss the current crisis and Chalabi’s potential role in a new government. The irony is too much to take, but the dalliance with Chalabi is not actually the issue.  Chatting up Chalabi is just a symptom of a bigger, albeit more abstract, problem the Obama and Bush administrations have had in Iraq:  Bad assumptions. Read more »

Kurds: Running Before Walking

by Steven A. Cook Friday, June 27, 2014
Members of the Kurdish Peshmerga celebrate in the city of Kirkuk June 24, 2014 (Ako Rasheed/Courtesy Reuters).

Erbil had a weird feel to it this week.  The euphoria that came when the Kurd’s military, known as the peshmerga, took over Kirkuk on June 11 has not exactly faded, but reality is making people nervous.  The Kurds have never had it so good, but it is all relative, and the Kurds may be getting ahead of themselves which could lead to disaster. Read more »

Silence in Egypt

by Guest Blogger for Steven A. Cook Thursday, June 26, 2014
Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed (L-R) listen to the ruling at a court in Cairo June 23, 2014 (Asmaa Waguih/Courtesy Reuters).

My research associate, Alex Brock, is in Cairo getting some well-deserved rest.  I thought you would be interested in his thoughts on recent developments in Egypt.  Enjoy.

Cairo, Egypt—I waited, and waited, checking Twitter.  I stopped by Tahrir Square a few times, figuring if anything would happen it would be there.  Some BBC employees staged a moment of silence, but that was in London. There was nothing in Cairo after a court convicted three Al Jazeera journalists and sentenced them to 7-10 years in prison.  Just silence.  The Twittersphere went crazy over the verdicts while the rest of Egypt went about its business.  The political turmoil in Egypt has become a fight between elites, while the rest of the country seems to want some sense of normalcy. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Ira-q-aos

by Steven A. Cook Friday, June 20, 2014
Members of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces take their positions during clashes with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the city of Ramadi June 19, 2014 (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

Faysal Itani examines the jihadists’ threat to Iraq (and Syria).

Inside Iraqi Politics offers a roundup of what has been going on in Iraq while everyone else was paying attention to anything else. Read more »

A Requiem for Iraq

by Steven A. Cook Tuesday, June 17, 2014
Kurdish Peshmerga troops (Azad Lashkari/Courtesy Reuters).

Istanbul–The United States should help Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki fend off the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria given the threats the group poses to American allies and interests, but Washington should also let Iraq go.  The country no longer makes sense to the people who live there. Read more »

The Contest for Regional Leadership in the New Middle East

by Steven A. Cook Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Free Syrian Army fighters pose on a tank, which they say was captured from the Syrian army loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, after clashes in Qasseer, near Homs (Shaam News Network/Courtesy Reuters).

The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) just published this report that I coauthored with Jacob Stokes, Bacevich fellow at  CNAS, and my research associate Alexander Brock.

“The Contest for Regional Leadership in the New Middle East” shows how, in addition to the historic political change occurring within the major states of the Middle East, there is a transformative process underway remaking the dynamics among the states of the region. The reordering of the geopolitics of the region has exposed rivalries among the contenders for leadership, as well as different ideological, economic, nationalistic and sectarian agendas. The report argues that Washington has sought to accommodate these changes in a way that continues to secure its strategic interests. What role the United States will play in a “new Middle East” is the subject of intense debate among Americans, Arabs and Turks. Nevertheless, it is clear that with all the problems regional powers have confronted trying to shape the politics of the region, American leadership will continue to be indispensable. Read more »

The Banality of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

by Steven A. Cook Monday, June 9, 2014
People walk in front of an election campaign poster of presidential candidate and Egypt's former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, along a highway in downtown Cairo (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

This article was originally published here on on Sunday, June 8, 2014. 

“I wish I was like Nasser,” Egypt’s new president, the retired field marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told Egyptian journalists during a televised interview in early May, referring to the former president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. “Nasser was not just a portrait on walls for Egyptians but a photo and voice carved in their hearts.” Sisi’s comments seemed rather appropriate; his crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, his military background, and his apparent popularity have a distinctly 1950s feel to them. Yet Sisi is not Nasser. Nor is he Anwar Sadat or Hosni Mubarak, or any other formative Egyptian leader. Sisi is just Sisi. As much as the new president has been billed as a hero and a savior, his coming rule is likely to be banal. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Investing in Egypt, Haunting 1967 Photos, and August in Turkey

by Steven A. Cook Friday, June 6, 2014
Galatasaray fans light flares to celebrate their goal against Fenerbahce during the Turkish Super League derby soccer match between Galatasaray and Fenerbahce in Istanbul (Murad Sezer/Courtesy Reuters).

Hdeel Abdelhady says that Egypt’s new investment law is not a solution to its economic woes, but rather is a symptom of the country’s inability to conceive and implement coherent economic policies. Read more »

The Sources of Erdogan’s Conduct

by Steven A. Cook Monday, June 2, 2014
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (R) poses with a painting depicting him as a miner, which was given to him from his ruling AK Party supporters, during a party meeting at the parliament in Ankara (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

There is a lot that seems inexplicable about Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent conduct.  In the last few years, the Turkish prime minister has squandered the good will of many of his citizens and his counterparts around the world.  Erdogan once represented a kind of Turkish “third way” (as cliché as that sounds) in which political reform and compromise were combined with economic liberalism and a consciously Muslim identity, but now he is mostly  known for bluster, intimidation, and the reversal of the impressive political reforms of 2003 and 2004. The prime minister’s routine bullying of his opponents seems rather unnecessary given his mastery of the Turkish political arena. That said, the most recent head-scratching episode came a few weeks ago upon the Turkish leader’s visit to the grieving people of Soma—the site of Turkey’s worst mining disaster ever.  Erdogan, who was ostensibly there to express sympathy for the families of the 305 dead miners, ended up slapping a protester unhappy with the government’s handling of the catastrophe.  If that was not enough, the ”Great Master” as his adoring press refers to Erdogan, reportedly called the poor man, “Israeli semen” as he stole away. Astonishing, to say the least.  Recently, Michael Weiss of and Now Lebanon—a keen observer of events in Syria, Turkey, and Russia—asked whether Erdogan is a “poached egg.”  Weiss’ work is always interesting and provocative, yet behind Erdogan’s sometimes curious behavior is a brilliant politician who deftly manipulates Turkey’s past greatness and humiliations, to powerful political effect. Read more »