Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

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

On the Death of a Friend in Israel

by Steven A. Cook Tuesday, July 15, 2014
Elhanan Harlev Elhanan Harlev

On the Death of a Friend in Israel

My friend Elhanan Harlev died on July 1st after a long illness. We had an odd friendship. He was an Israeli by way of Germany and Argentina. I am a kid from Long Island. Elhanan was more than three decades older than me. We did not share a common language. Against those odds we somehow managed to communicate. Often times it was through an able interpreter like his wife, my cousin Carol, or one of her sons from her first marriage—most often Ari, who has popped up on this blog from time to time. At other times, Elhanan and I just found a way to understand each other. Never has a name, Elhanan means “God is Merciful,” been so apt for the soft-spoken, gentle, and wise soul that he was (and remains). His was an extraordinary life because it was so normal. And in that normalcy, he taught me more about Israel than much of what I have read. Read more »

Weekend Reading: The King of the Kurds, Sexual Violence in Egypt, and Israel’s Accidental War

by Steven A. Cook Friday, July 11, 2014
A Sunni Sheikh carries a mock of a rocket during a demonstration organised by Lebanese Sunni Islamists and Palestinians to denounce Israeli air strikes on the Gaza strip (Ali Hashisho/Courtesy Reuters). A Sunni Sheikh carries a mock of a rocket during a demonstration organised by Lebanese Sunni Islamists and Palestinians to denounce Israeli air strikes on the Gaza strip (Ali Hashisho/Courtesy Reuters).

Sarah Carr, writing for Mada Masroffers an in-depth and graphic look at sexual assault and the Egyptian state.

J.J. Goldberg explores the triggers to an “unintended” war in Gaza. Read more »

Iraq: Allah Have Mercy

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