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"

Neither Shocked nor Awed: The Arab Reaction to the Iran Deal

by Guest Blogger for Steven A. Cook
Saudi King Salman attends the opening meeting of the Arab Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters). Saudi King Salman attends the opening meeting of the Arab Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

My research associate, Amr Leheta, wrote this terrific post on the Arab reaction to the framework agreement between the P5+1 and Iran. Enjoy!

“The Nuclear Agreement…A Strategic Earthquake in the Middle East” read one headline in a London-based, pan-Arab newspaper on April 4. In the article underneath, published a couple of days after the announcement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding Iran’s nuclear program, the editorial board of Al-Quds Al-Arabi wrote the following: Read more »

Washington and Cairo: Goodbye My Love, Goodbye

by Steven A. Cook
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends the opening meeting of the Arab Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends the opening meeting of the Arab Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

Last Tuesday afternoon the National Security Council announced that the Obama administration was releasing the long-delayed shipments of M1A1 tank kits, Harpoon missiles, and F-16 fighter jets to the Egyptian armed forces. The decision proved to be immediately controversial and was swiftly denounced on social media as “back to business as usual” with the Egyptians. It certainly seems that way. Reportedly, the administration based its decision on Egypt’s own deteriorating security situation, which has coincided with wars raging in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. The regional political environment may be novel, but the White House’s rationale—security—is reminiscent of a time in the not so distant past when Washington only raised Egypt’s dismal human rights record in a perfunctory way. The most important things then (and now) were keeping the Suez Canal open, the Islamists down, and the peace with Israel secure. Yet for all of the apparent continuities in Washington’s approach to Egypt’s president, from Hosni Mubarak to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, it is not back to business as usual, and that’s not because the administration will be cutting off Cairo’s access to cash flow financing—a credit card for weapons—in fiscal year 2018. Rather, it is not business as usual because business as usual is not really an option. Read more »

The Weirdness of Ross Douthat’s Pax Americana

by Steven A. Cook
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani addres a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House (Gary Cameron/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. President Barack Obama (R) and Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani addres a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House (Gary Cameron/Courtesy Reuters).

Way back when before the 2008 presidential elections, some Democratic Party foreign policy operatives put together a series of seminars near Jacksonville, Florida at a place called White Oak Plantation. From what I understand, the idea was to bring some folks together to work through the difficult and complex issues facing the United States in the post–George W. Bush world. A few friends who work on Asia, Europe, and international economic issues took part in what sounded like a series of interesting weekends. To my knowledge, the people behind the White Oak meetings never organized a discussion on the Middle East because—according to a buddy of mine who attended one of the sessions—they did not feel the need to; they said they could just read about the region in the papers. I remember feeling the professional slight on behalf of all my Middle East expert colleagues everywhere and a little surprised. Although there were exceptions, the Bush team as a group did not distinguish themselves with a firm grasp of the history, politics, and culture of the region. Surely, I thought, the people preparing and hoping to lead the country for the next eight years—at least—would want to avoid making similar mistakes. Then again, there is the widely held perception that for all that Middle East analysts know about the region, policy recommendations are not their strong suit. So why not rely on what foreign correspondents and columnists have to say? Their record cannot be any worse, right? All of this came to mind on Sunday morning when I cast my gaze upon Ross Douthat’s Sunday column in the New York Times, “The Method to Obama’s Middle East Mess.” Read more »

American Leadership and the Middle East

by Steven A. Cook
U.S. President Barack Obama is flanked by Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Secretary of State John Kerry (R) as he delivers a statement on legislation sent to Congress to authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State (Jonathan Ernst/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. President Barack Obama is flanked by Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Secretary of State John Kerry (R) as he delivers a statement on legislation sent to Congress to authorize the use of military force against the Islamic State (Jonathan Ernst/Courtesy Reuters).

It was hard to zero in on a topic to write about this week with all that is happening in the Middle East. There are now three countries that seem to be breaking apart—Libya, Yemen, and Iraq—and a certain permanence has settled over the horrific violence in Syria. The Palestinian Authority is on the verge of collapse. Egypt, along with the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Qatar, are now involved in the conflict among various Libyan factions. Yes, it seems that yet another proxy war is underway in the Middle East. All of this happened against the backdrop of new ISIS horrors—a seemingly weekly event. I have not had the courage to bring myself to watch the video of the twenty-one Egyptian Christians slaughtered by the so-called Islamic State on a beach in Libya. It is too gruesome. Needless to say, they were beheaded for no other reason than they were Christians, which is not to diminish the fact that a vast majority of ISIS’s victims have been Muslims. Read more »

How To Get Egypt’s Generals Back On Our Side

by Steven A. Cook
Army soldiers take their positions with their armoured personnel vehicles during clashes with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi in the Cairo suburb of Matariya November 28, 2014 (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters). Army soldiers take their positions with their armoured personnel vehicles during clashes with supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi in the Cairo suburb of Matariya November 28, 2014 (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).

This article was originally published here on ForeignPolicy.com on Monday, January 5, 2015.

Almost as soon as the nasheed, a religious chant, begins, an improvised explosive device destroys a military vehicle in the distance. The scene repeats again, in super-slow motion. The nasheed continues, encouraging jihadists to raise up their swords, fight for god, and make their way to paradise. In the next scene, terrorists assault a small military outpost nestled amid palm trees, shooting their way through the rubble and killing a soldier who returns fire. A tank comes into view, its turret swinging wildly, raking the area with machine gun fire ineffectively, and then beating a hasty retreat. The footage then shifts to the gruesome aftermath: a burned-out tank, a disabled armored personnel carrier, and dead, mangled soldiers. Read more »

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 »