Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

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Showing posts for "U.S. Foreign Policy"

Making War In Iraq

by Steven A. Cook
A member of the Kurdish "peshmerga" forces takes part in an intensive security deployment after clashes with Islamic State militants in Jalawla, Diyala province (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters). A member of the Kurdish "peshmerga" forces takes part in an intensive security deployment after clashes with Islamic State militants in Jalawla, Diyala province (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

It was sort of amazing back in August when President Barack Obama went before the White House press corps and publicly declared, “We don’t have a strategy yet” when it came to combating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He was pilloried in a collective freak-out that crossed partisan lines. The president probably should not have said what he said given what he must now know about the press, his opponents, and his previous, ill-considered comments about post-Bin Laden extremist groups being “JV.” That said, admitting that his administration had not yet determined how to meet the ISIS threat was also sort of prudent. “Strategy” and “strategic” are among the most misused and abused words in Washington, and given the complex and unprecedented problems that are consuming Iraq and Syria, it was a good idea for the administration to take a step back and ask a number of basic questions before settling on its goals and determining the resources necessary to meet those objectives. For example, what resources were available to the United States? What are ISIS’ goals? What can regional allies do? How might regional adversaries react to various courses of action? What are reasonable goals for the United States? How will the American people respond to different approaches? Instead, as I wrote last September, the president was bullied into bombing ISIS after James Foley was beheaded, leaving the Pentagon, White House, and State Department to figure out a strategy on the fly. It was no way to go to war. Read more »

Turkey And The United States: Death By A Thousand Slights

by Steven A. Cook
U.S. President Barack Obama hosts a bilateral meeting with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan during the NATO Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales September 5, 2014 (Larry Downing/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. President Barack Obama hosts a bilateral meeting with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan during the NATO Summit at the Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, Wales September 5, 2014 (Larry Downing/Courtesy Reuters).

The relationship between the United States and Turkey has hit the skids. The controversy over Kobani has revealed deep fissures and deep mistrust between Washington and Ankara. It is true that U.S.-Turkish ties were never easy. Beyond the gauzy rhetoric of fighting and dying together in Korea and standing shoulder-to-shoulder to counter the Soviet threat, there was a war of words between President Lyndon Johnson and Turkish Prime Minister Ismet Inonu over Cyprus, and then after the Turks invaded the island in 1974, Washington imposed an arms embargo on Ankara. In between and even in the years after the United States lifted the sanctions on Turkey, mistrust was a constant feature of the relationship. No doubt some Turkey watchers will claim that if bilateral ties survived the difficult period of the 1960s and 1970s, there is no reason to believe that relations will be permanently impaired now, but that is a lazy argument. The factors that drove the strategic relationship—the Soviet Union, Middle East peacemaking, Turkey’s EU project, and soft landings in the Arab world—no longer exist. At the same time, the accumulated evidence from recent experience in Syria, Israel-Palestine, Egypt, and Iraq indicate that Washington and Ankara simply have different goals. Read more »

ISIS and Us: No Way To Go To War

by Steven A. Cook
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a live televised address to the nation on his plans for military action against the Islamic State, from the Cross Hall of the White House in Washington September 10, 2014 (Saul Loeb/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a live televised address to the nation on his plans for military action against the Islamic State, from the Cross Hall of the White House in Washington September 10, 2014 (Saul Loeb/Courtesy Reuters).

Washington is in an ISIS frenzy.  Everywhere you turn, everything you read, every place you go, you can’t escape ISIS.  Since James Foley was beheaded on August 19, everyone in and around the Beltway wants to go to war in Iraq. Try as he might to be careful and avoid the mistakes of a decade ago, it seems that the president is being bullied—by the press and his political opponents—into what can only be described as a half-baked policy to go deal with the ISIS threat. Bullied? Yes, bullied.  For a White House that prides itself on not paying attention to its critics, the president seems to be reacting to the universal derision of his ill-considered “We don’t have a strategy yet” statement.  Peter Baker’s revealing piece in Sunday’s New York Times suggests that the criticism stung.  This is why a variety of sources, no doubt close to the president, were willing to relay to Baker how much deliberating over ISIS was actually going on inside the Oval Office before the president’s big speech last Wednesday.  It was hard not to notice the “campaigny, spinny” feel to these statements. That speech, which was clearly intended to alter the perception of helpless incompetence, merely reiterated the ad hoc approach to Iraq that his administration has pursued since early June. There may be good reasons to go to war against ISIS, but no one has actually articulated them.  Are we protecting Erbil and American personnel? Undertaking a humanitarian mission? Fighting evil? Helping the Free Syrian Army? Assisting Washington’s regional allies against the ISIS threat? No one knows, but we are nevertheless turning the aircraft carriers into the wind.  This is no way to go to war. Read more »

Assadomasochism

by Steven A. Cook
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad heads a meeting of his new cabinet in Damascus August 31, 2014 (Sana Sana/Courtesy Reuters). Syria's President Bashar al-Assad heads a meeting of his new cabinet in Damascus August 31, 2014 (Sana Sana/Courtesy Reuters).

There is now no question that the United States is about to get a lot more involved in Iraq (and perhaps Syria) than President Obama had ever intended.  So far, the administration has made it clear that the goal is to defeat ISIS, but it has been more difficult determining how to make that happen. The administration has not publicly offered much in the way of what its strategy is other than to say that a broad international coalition is necessary to crush ISIS.  Here is a question: Will Syria be part of that coalition? That sounds crazy after Bashar al Assad has killed 190,000 of his own people and made three million of them refugees.  Hasn’t virtually everyone inside the Beltway declared that “Assad must go”? Still, the issue lingers.  There has been some speculation that the United States is coordinating with Bashar al Assad via the Emiratis and last winter there were mysterious reports of Western intelligence officers reaching out to Damascus.  Who knows what to make of these stories, yet it is clear that serious, but cold-hearted people both within the United States government and outside of it have advanced the idea of working with Assad “because the alternative [i.e. ISIS] is worse.” This is a losing proposition and among the worst policy recommendations to surface since Syria’s descent into bloodshed began three summers ago. Read more »

The New Arab Cold War

by Steven A. Cook
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal (R) after arriving at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah June 27, 2014 (POOL New/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) talks with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal (R) after arriving at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah June 27, 2014 (POOL New/Courtesy Reuters).

This article was originally published here on ForeignPolicy.com on Thursday, August 28, 2014.

A bitter proxy war is being waged in the Middle East. It stretches from Iraq to Lebanon and reaches into North Africa, taking lives in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt’s Western Desert, and now Libya. Although the nihilism of the Islamic State and the threat of other extremist groups have garnered virtually all the attention of the media and governments, this violence is the result of a nasty fight between regional powers over who will lead the Middle East. It is a blood-soaked mess that will be left to the United States to clean up. Read more »

Washington Can’t Solve the Identity Crisis in Middle East Nations

by Steven A. Cook
Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, walk to a refugee camp after they re-enter Iraq from Syria, August 14, 2014 (Youssef Boudlal/Courtesy Reuters). Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, walk to a refugee camp after they re-enter Iraq from Syria, August 14, 2014 (Youssef Boudlal/Courtesy Reuters).

I published the following piece in the Outlook section of Sunday’s Washington Post. I hope you find it interesting and useful! Read more »

The Contest for Regional Leadership in the New Middle East

by Steven A. Cook
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). 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 Myth of Obama’s Failure in the Middle East

by Steven A. Cook
U.S. President Barack Obama waves after addressing Israeli students at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem (Baz Ratner/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. President Barack Obama waves after addressing Israeli students at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem (Baz Ratner/Courtesy Reuters).

I wrote the following piece, which appeared here in Al Monitor yesterday with my friend, Michael Brooks. Michael is the host of the Intersection podcast on Aslan Media and a contributor for the award-winning daily political talk program the Majority Report.
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Grading Mearsheimer

by Steven A. Cook
Egypt's Prime Minister Essam Sharaf (L) speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama next to Egypt's Minister of Finance Samir Radwan (C) before posing for a group photo at the G8 summit in Deauville (Philippe Wojazer/Courtesy Reuters). Egypt's Prime Minister Essam Sharaf (L) speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama next to Egypt's Minister of Finance Samir Radwan (C) before posing for a group photo at the G8 summit in Deauville (Philippe Wojazer/Courtesy Reuters).

When I was at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I enrolled in a seminar on the revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe with Professor Michael Mandelbaum.  The Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and Czecholsolvakia were not quite my thing, but the course was an interesting diversion from the Middle East and it was topical (this was 1994).  When Mandelbaum—who is now a friend and mentor—returned my first paper, he scratched along the bottom of the last page, “Your conclusions are surely correct, but you make a series of dubious assertions along the way.”  I had the same reaction when I read John J. Mearsheimer’s recent contribution to The National Interest, “America Unhinged.” Read more »

Egypt: Mockery

by Steven A. Cook
Riot police and army personnel take their positions during clashes with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi around the area of Rabaa al Adawiya square on August 14, 2013 (Asmaa Waguih/Courtesy Reuters). Riot police and army personnel take their positions during clashes with members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi around the area of Rabaa al Adawiya square on August 14, 2013 (Asmaa Waguih/Courtesy Reuters).

There is no shortage of advice in the United States about how the Obama administration should approach Egypt.  The familiar ring of policy prescriptions bouncing around the Beltway and beyond is either a testament to a lack of creativity or limited leverage or the return of some version of the political order that prevailed under Mubarak. Take, for example, Saturday’s lead editorial in the Washington Post called, “The U.S. Must Confront the Egyptian Military’s Push for Authoritarian Rule.”  It could have been written in 2007 after Hosni Mubarak pushed through a series of constitutional reforms.  In fact, “Constitutional Autocracy” from March 2007 must have been a template of sorts for Saturday’s piece.  Don’t get me wrong, the editorial board’s criticism of Egypt’s draft constitution is spot on, but its policy prescriptions seem a bit tattered.  According to the folks over on 15th Street, now that it is clear that Egypt is not on the road to democracy (as if that has not been fairly obvious for some time) the Obama administration should “suspend aid and cooperation with the regime until it frees political prisoners and adopts a genuine democratic path.” Read more »