Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

Lost in Iraq

by Steven A. Cook Tuesday, May 26, 2015
An Iraqi soldier carries a displaced kid from Ramadi on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters). An Iraqi soldier carries a displaced kid from Ramadi on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

On Sunday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter appeared on CNN’s State of the Union during which he reflected on the performance of the Iraqi Security Forces in the recent battle for Ramadi. “What apparently happened was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight,” he said. “They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force, and yet they failed to fight.” It was a stunning admission. The United States has been retraining and reequipping the Iraqi military (again) since last summer and its ignominious performance in Mosul, Tikrit, and every place in between. The defeat in Ramadi and Secretary Carter’s blunt assessment suggests that the Obama administration’s return on investment is close to nil. It is extraordinarily worrisome because the White House’s entire strategy is based on providing local actors, primarily the Iraqi Security Forces, the means to “degrade and defeat” the self-proclaimed Islamic State instead of deploying American soldiers to do the job. The secretary’s statement was particularly surprising since Secretary of State John Kerry assured the press a few days earlier that the Islamic State’s grip on Ramadi would be temporary, while the White House called it a “tactical setback.” Perhaps Carter was responding to the Iraqis who blamed Washington for the defeat. Or maybe he knows better than anyone what is what in Iraq, and when the inevitable accounting is done, Carter and the Pentagon do not want to take the blame for who lost Iraq (again). The most straightforward explanation for the administration’s mixed signals, however, is this: No one really knows or understands what is happening in Iraq. Read more »

Beji Caid Essebsi and Tunisia’s Identity Politics

by Steven A. Cook Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Beji Caid Essebsi, former Tunisian prime minister and leader of the Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) secular party, speaks during a meeting on the third anniversary of the overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali January 14, 2014 (Zoubeir Souissi/Courtesy Reuters). Beji Caid Essebsi, former Tunisian prime minister and leader of the Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia) secular party, speaks during a meeting on the third anniversary of the overthrow of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali January 14, 2014 (Zoubeir Souissi/Courtesy Reuters).

The Tunisian president, Beji Caid Essebsi, is coming to Washington today for meetings with President Obama. It is a big moment. Tunisian leaders have visited multiple times since Zine El Abedine Ben Ali’s fall in January 2011, but Essebsi’s visit is more consequential if only because he is not saddled with “interim” in his title. As I have written before, there is a lot to like about what has happened in Tunisia—peaceful transfers of power, compromise, a sense of shared responsibility for the future of the country, and minimal violence. It is for all these reasons that one hears the constant refrain, “Tunisia is the Arab Spring success story.” Even by the low standards of the present (and future) Middle East, the Tunisians have accomplished much in a short period of time. Still, I am having a hard time bringing myself around to the perception that Tunisia is firmly on a democratic trajectory. This is not just because of the country’s serious economic challenges, center-periphery problems, the apparent appeal of extremism to a relatively large number of young educated Tunisian men, or my own terminal cynicism. It’s more straightforward than any of those explanations: I simply do not believe that Beji Caid Essebsi has any particular interest in building an inclusive, pluralist political system. He is not even shy about his intentions. Read more »

Weekend Reading: AKP and the Kurds; IS in Syria, and Arab Cartoonists

by Steven A. Cook Saturday, May 16, 2015
Pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) deputy Sebahat Tuncel (1st row, 3rd L) and her party members are surrounded by riot police as they hold a sit-in protest near Gezi Park in central Istanbul July 28, 2013 (Murad Sezer/Courtesy Reuters). Pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) deputy Sebahat Tuncel (1st row, 3rd L) and her party members are surrounded by riot police as they hold a sit-in protest near Gezi Park in central Istanbul July 28, 2013 (Murad Sezer/Courtesy Reuters).

Serkan Demirtas writes about the AKP and the quest for peace with the Kurds

Mohammad Raba’a discusses Wadi Barada, an Islamic State foothold in Syria. Read more »

Mothers of the Middle East

by Steven A. Cook Monday, May 11, 2015
An Egyptian boy attends evening prayers called "Tarawih", during Laylat al-Qadr outside Amr Ibn El-Aas mosque, the first and oldest mosque ever built on the land of Egypt, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Cairo September 16, 2009 (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). An Egyptian boy attends evening prayers called "Tarawih", during Laylat al-Qadr outside Amr Ibn El-Aas mosque, the first and oldest mosque ever built on the land of Egypt, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Cairo September 16, 2009 (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

As I write, Mother’s Day 2015 is coming to a close. It was a special day. Who is better than Mom? I called my mother, made breakfast in bed for my wife, spoke to my mother-in-law, and cheered all the Moms whose photos showed up on my Facebook feed. Yet for all of the celebration of Mom, there remain a few Mothers who—to the best of my knowledge— have gone without recognition this year, which is a bummer for them. So here goes, my favorite Middle Eastern Moms: Read more »

Weekend Reading: A Return to Idlib, Secular Politics in Egypt, and al-Qaeda in Syria

by Steven A. Cook Friday, May 8, 2015
Civilians react as they wear gas masks after what activists said was a chlorine gas attack on Kansafra village at Idlib countryside, Syria (Abed Kontar/Courtesy Reuters). Civilians react as they wear gas masks after what activists said was a chlorine gas attack on Kansafra village at Idlib countryside, Syria (Abed Kontar/Courtesy Reuters).

Ahmad al-Akla writes about people’s return to rebel-controlled Idlib, Syria.

A new party in Egypt calls for a secular constitution. Read more »

Hasbara…Hasbara Everywhere

by Steven A. Cook Monday, May 4, 2015
Doctors help an injured resident at the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) field hospital following Saturday's earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal (Danish Siddiqui/Courtesy Reuters). Doctors help an injured resident at the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) field hospital following Saturday's earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal (Danish Siddiqui/Courtesy Reuters).

Last week Israel took criticism for sending a contingent of doctors and search and rescue specialists to Nepal to participate in the earthquake relief efforts. Read that again. There is no “not” in between “for” and “sending.” The Israel Defense Forces sent 260 doctors, nurses, and personnel trained in finding disaster victims to Katmandu after the major (7.8 on the Richter scale) earthquake…and it was quickly dismissed as propaganda to deflect attention from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip. The Israelis have a lot to answer for when it comes to the Palestinians, from continued expropriation of Palestinian land in the West Bank to death and destruction in Gaza, but what do those issues have to do with earthquake relief in Nepal? Apparently everything the Israelis do is hasbara. Read more »

Weekend Reading and Watching: Zarif in NY, Daily Life in Damascus, and Science in the Middle East

by Steven A. Cook Friday, May 1, 2015
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) speaks with Washington Post journalist David Ignatius at the New York University (NYU) Center on International Cooperation in New York (Lucas Jackson/Courtesy Reuters). Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) speaks with Washington Post journalist David Ignatius at the New York University (NYU) Center on International Cooperation in New York (Lucas Jackson/Courtesy Reuters).

Iranian FM Mohammad Zarif answers questions at New York University on the recent nuclear framework, terrorism, and more.

Rima Ayoubi talks about day to day difficulties she faces in Damascus. Read more »

Weekend Reading: Migrants and Libya?, Taking Tikrit, and Escaping Yemen

by Steven A. Cook Saturday, April 25, 2015
A group of 104 sub-Saharan Africans on board a rubber dinghy reach out for life jackets tossed to them by rescuers of the NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) some 25 miles off the Libyan coast (Darrin Zammit Lupi/Courtesy Reuters). A group of 104 sub-Saharan Africans on board a rubber dinghy reach out for life jackets tossed to them by rescuers of the NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) some 25 miles off the Libyan coast (Darrin Zammit Lupi/Courtesy Reuters).

Issandr El Amrani argues that a strong, stable Libya would not solve the migration problems in the Mediterranean.

The editors at the Middle East Research and Information Project urge for a humanitarian corridor for foreign nationals and Yemenis to escape Yemen. Read more »

One Hundred Years After Gallipoli

by Steven A. Cook Friday, April 24, 2015
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, with a portrait of modern Turkey's founder Ataturk in the background, works at his office at the AK Party headquarters in Ankara June 13, 2011 (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters). Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, with a portrait of modern Turkey's founder Ataturk in the background, works at his office at the AK Party headquarters in Ankara June 13, 2011 (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters).

This article was originally published here on ForeignAffairs.com on Thursday, April 23, 2015.

On April 25, 1915, when British, French, and Australian and New Zealand troops landed on the strategic Gallipoli Peninsula, their objective was to knock out Ottoman defenses and make way for Allied navies to steam up the Dardanelles strait toward Istanbul. It was a risky and costly endeavor that culminated in their total retreat eight months later. For Gallipoli’s defenders, who lost 86,692 men, the battle was an important victory in defense of the Ottoman Empire. Paradoxically, it also became a touchstone of the nationalism that was so important to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey less than a decade later. Likewise, celebrations planned for the battle’s centenary reflect the tension between the valorization of the Ottoman era and the hallowed memory of Mustafa Kemal—Ataturk—modern Turkey’s founder. In many ways, the memory of Gallipoli is still shaping, and is being shaped by, the country’s political trajectory. Read more »

The King of the Arab Street vs. the Pope

by Steven A. Cook Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Pope Francis and Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan prepare to leave after a press conference at the presidential palace in Ankara November 28, 2014 (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters). Pope Francis and Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan prepare to leave after a press conference at the presidential palace in Ankara November 28, 2014 (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters).

This article was originally published here on Foreign Policy‘s website on Wednesday, April 22, 2015.

As the world commemorates the centennial of the Armenian genocide this week, Turkey’s government once again finds itself fighting an old, losing battle. According to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the recent spate of calls to recognize the genocide is the work of an “evil gang” bent on slandering the country’s honor. Read more »