Best Defense guest columnist
Over two years after the repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, a confluence of federal legislation promises to test the military's commitment to upholding the rights of LGBT servicemembers. In highlighting a growing tension between the obligation of employers to accommodate religious needs and a parallel mandate to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) together present a useful capsule of the emerging debate around how to balance competing civil rights visions.
Currently headed for the Senate after a series of committee reviews in the House, ENDA would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in most American workplaces. The bill is modeled after Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and, as such, contains parallel language regarding the distinct needs of religiously affiliated organizations. However, while Title VII simply permits religious organizations to give employment preference to members of their own religion, ENDA would exempt these organizations altogether from its purview, allowing religiously affiliated hospitals and universities to discriminate against employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Proponents of the exemption argue that in its absence, they would be required to violate their religious beliefs by condoning homosexuality.
In addition to animating policy debate, this tension between identity groups has also given rise to disputes on the ground. At Hewlett Packard, for example, an employee alleged that he was improperly terminated for failing to comply with the company's anti-harassment policy when he refused to remove from his cubicle a series of posters condemning homosexuality. The case reached a federal appeals court, which found that he was not discharged due to his religious beliefs but, rather, because he created a hostile and intolerant work environment for his colleagues.
This distinction between belief and conduct also informed a lower court decision concerning an AT&T employee's refusal to sign an agreement obligating all personnel to "recognize, respect and value" the differences among them. While the employee in question was willing to certify that he would not discriminate against or harass anyone, he maintained he could not "value" certain behavior without compromising his own religious beliefs. The court agreed with his premise, finding that the company could regulate the conduct, but not the beliefs, of its employees.
A similar tone has characterized discussions about how to reconcile the religious beliefs and equality rights of military personnel. Following the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the Department of Defense issued a memorandum outlining the impact of this development on specific policies within the military. In addressing anti-discrimination policy, the Pentagon indicated that, unlike race and gender, sexual orientation would not be deemed a protected class for purposes of diversity programming, tracking initiatives, and the Military Equal Opportunity program complaint resolution process. Instead, grievances would be processed through individual commanders or inspector general channels.
Almost three years later, this informal approach to addressing discrimination may well be further eroded by an NDAA amendment on religious accommodation for military personnel. A provision in the House-passed act, authored by Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), would amend an existing requirement to accommodate "the beliefs of a member of the armed forces reflecting ... conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs," and instead mandate the accommodation of "beliefs, actions, and speech." In prohibiting commanders from regulating even offensive speech or conduct purportedly rooted in religious convictions, this provision is at odds with the repeal memo's assertions that "[h]arassment or abuse based on sexual orientation is unacceptable" and that servicemembers must "respect and serve with others who may hold different views and beliefs."
Apart from potentially sanctioning abusive conduct towards lesbian, gay, and bisexual servicemembers, the Fleming amendment could also provide cover for discrimination against other minorities in the military, including women seeking access to reproductive care. At a moment when the Pentagon promises to ease access to abortion care for rape victims, not to mention curtail the underlying sexual violence giving rise to this need, the military can ill afford to foster discrimination within its ranks. By regulating offensive speech and conduct, as other employers have done, it can balance the rights of religious members to maintain their beliefs with an equally compelling interest in respecting the dignity of others.
Rachel Natelson is an attorney specializing in the rights of military women. She has provided legal service to military personnel for several years. She formerly served as the legal director of the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), where she managed the legal service helpline. She is an active member of the National Lawyers Guild's Military Law Task Force.
Sgt. Anthony Cruz/DVIDS
This new pope continues to amaze me. He just makes so much sense.
Why do I mention this in a defense-oriented blog? Because the other day, in an interview, he used a military metaphor in describing his conception of the role of the church: "I see the church as a field hospital after battle." By which he meant, when someone is wounded and suffering, you don't fret about his cholesterol levels.
Later in the same interview he discussed some of his favorite music and films. He singled out Rome, Open City, made in 1945 about the last days of German rule there during World War II. It is a terrific film. Do yourself a favor: Order the pizza, open a bottle of zinfandel or sangiovese, and watch it.
What would it be like if other major organizations got similarly fresh, common sense thinking at the top? Imagine if the NRA came out and said, "You know, it really is time to do something about gun violence, and here is a plan we are reluctantly embracing." Or if American professional sports banned anyone ever convicted of a felony or a violent crime. Or if we managed to get corporations out of financing political campaigns. Or if Congress made the rich pay their fair share in taxes.... Well, I can dream.
(HT to Mr. Andrew Sullivan)
By John T. Kuehn
Best Defense guest columnist
The so-called "Arab Spring" has now turned into a larger Mideast autumn that is reflecting warfare and conflict approaching the bloody religious wars that Europe went through during the 16th and 17th centuries.
We are seeing the beginning of a wider regional war along the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus axis and beyond -- not an "axis of evil," but rather an axis of instability and conflict. It could go further, linking to similar areas of violence to the east (in Afghanistan-Pakistan) or to the west to the mess in Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa. Instead of democracy breaking out everywhere, it seems that war is breaking out everywhere. Syria is the nexus for the current dangerous inflection point. It is in many ways similar to the Netherlands of the 16th century, that area of rebellion against the Hapsburgs/Catholic Church that rocked the world for over 80 years as the Reformation swirled about.
As we all know, voices are clamoring in Washington to "make it go away." Or rather to make the critics of the Obama administration quiet down. Most recently, Secretary of State John Kerry argued for airstrikes on airfields reputedly being used by the Assad regime for combat missions, including chemical weapons attacks. Kerry's proposal was vetoed during a recent principals meeting at the White House by none other than General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So much for war-mongering generals. Additionally, in recent months, Hezbollah has entered the conflict with thousands of fighters to help retake the city of Qusayr from the Syrian insurgents. Today, Qusayr is a ghost town with fewer than 500 inhabitants. Recall, too, that Hezbollah are the same bubbas that brought us the Marine Barracks attack in 1983. Reports out today indicate that the Lebanese Army has had several firefights with local Sunnis who support the Syrian rebels. Just great, a re-ignition of the Lebanese civil war might be in the offing.
Moving to the east we find the "sectarian violence" in Iraq at levels not seen since the American surge in 2007. Could yet another civil war be igniting there -- this time absent the armed umpiring of the United States and its allies? It may already have. The link here is precisely Iran's support for the Assad regime and its client quasi-state farther south, Hezbollah. From a purely military standpoint, Tehran's line of communication with its political allies and co-religionists farther west in Syria and Lebanon runs directly through Iraq. This "rat line" is used by the Quds Force and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and has been in place in various forms ever since the U.S. invasion in 2003. See David Crist's recent book The Twilight War if you doubt me on this issue. The sectarian violence in Iraq is directly related to the Syrian violence -- make no mistake. One way for the insurgents' co-religionist Sunni allies in Iraq to influence events in Syria is to destabilize the pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. In this way they can interrupt the flow of Iranian support to both Hezbollah and Assad through Iraq.
Afghanistan? There is no need for further discussion; war continues there and is likely to continue -- although the political ties of Tehran to Kabul may strengthen given President Karzai's recent strong denunciation of U.S. efforts to include the Taliban in peace talks. Too, Iran's oil goes to India, which is also a supporter of the Kabul regime, all of which makes Pakistan the odd man out and more likely to support Sunni co-religionists and political allies represented now by insurgents in both Syria and Iraq.
What about further west? Let's see, Egypt has severed diplomatic ties with Syria, never a good sign. Further south, in the always pleasant Horn of Africa, we find U.N. personnel have been blown up in Mogadishu by al Shabab. Although clear linkages to the conflict to the northeast do not exist, the forces behind this latest attack on the international order are of a religious bent that favors the insurgent-Sunni factions. Too, this sort of violent outburst does nothing to improve the stability of this entire region. Farther west we find the arc of instability running along the Maghreb (Tunisia and Algeria) as well as splitting south through Libya to troubling events in Mali and Nigeria; the latter country is itself in a low state of civil war divided along ethno-religious lines. Finally, to the north of it all is the NATO ally and Sunni co-religionist government of Turkey, warily eying the troublemaking regime of Vlad Putin, which supports Syria. But Turkey is now distracted by widespread, Westernized demonstrations against its own attempts to impose religious conservatism. None of this can be comforting for the major powers, which all have a stake in the Middle East and Africa. Get the picture? Heated outbursts to quiet political audiences are probably -- as Dempsey pointed out to Secretary Kerry -- ill-advised.
This regional conflict is not just about religion, nor is it all about longstanding political relationships and ethnic tensions -- it is all of the above. I am compelled to ask, what should the United States do that it is not already doing? This presupposes I know the range of action the U.S. government is already engaged in, but I would suggest these steps -- whatever they are -- are probably sufficient for now. Those who predicted the Arab Spring turning into a messy regional war were right. It has arrived.
This is the time for calm heads to prevail and avoid a much larger general war, but first we must recognize the real potential for this mess to turn into something along the lines of Europe's own wars of religion, something like the grim and destructive Thirty Years' War that began with a "Prague Spring" in 1618.
John T. Kuehn has taught military history at the Command and General Staff College since 2003 and retired from the Navy as a commander in 2004. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Kansas State University in 2007. He graduated with distinction from Naval Postgraduate School in 1988. He won the Society of Military History Moncado Prize in 2010 and is the author of Agents of Innovation (2008), Eyewitness Pacific Theater (with D.M. Giangreco, 2008), and numerous articles and editorials.
By Joel Wing
Best Defense guest Iraq analyst
Iraq recently passed a milestone when the United Nations reported over 1,000 people killed in May 2013. That was the highest number of casualties since 2008. People are beginning to fear going out, and businesses are shifting to safer areas and closing earlier. There are also ongoing protests in Sunni provinces such as Anbar, Salahaddin, and Ninewa against the government, which are increasing sectarian tensions in the country. Together this has raised fears that the country is heading back towards civil war. While the situation is obviously getting worse, a more apt analogy would be Iraq in 2003 when the United States was facing a growing insurgency, and had no strategy to confront it.
The April 2013 raid upon the protest site in Hawija incited the current wave of violence in Iraq. The demonstrators there were openly connected to the Baathist Naqshibandi insurgent group. When the government decided to go into the camp looking for the murderers of a soldier killed at a checkpoint just outside the site, the security forces used excessive force leading to dozens of deaths. This was just the event militants were looking for. They claimed Baghdad could not be trusted, and that the authorities were going to crack down on the activists using the military. The insurgents therefore said the only legitimate response was to defend themselves through armed action. Following Hawija there were attacks throughout the north, west, and central parts of Iraq by both militants and tribal groups. This was on top of an ongoing offensive by al Qaeda in Iraq. Together that accounts for the skyrocketing casualty figures, which jumped from 319 in January according to the United Nations to 1,045 in May. Attacks have continued at that pace to the present, marking a new turn in the country's security situation.
In response, Baghdad has launched a series of raids and large-scale military operations across several provinces, which have proven ineffective. In May for instance, there was "The Ghost," which focused on the desert regions of Anbar province. Currently, Iraqi forces are deployed along the Syrian border in Anbar and Ninewa as those two provinces hold provincial elections. These operations have garnered increasing criticisms from local politicians and the citizenry who claim that there have been arbitrary arrests, roads have been shut down hindering travel, and property has been destroyed during searches of houses. This points to the counterproductive tactics the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are currently employing. Since the United States military departed the country, the ISF has stopped using counterinsurgency tactics. Instead, the military and police man checkpoints with bomb detectors that don't work, and conduct mass raids in which not only fighting-aged men are arrested, but their families as well. The majority of these detainees are then beaten and tortured before they are released. Human Rights Watch, for example, detailed the Federal Police arresting 41 people, including 29 children, in Taji, Salahaddin in November 2012. 12 women and girls were held for four days in the police headquarters where they were beaten, electrocuted, and suffocated with plastic bags over their heads before they were released. There is no way that these tactics can stop the insurgency. Rather than protecting the public and being proactive, the ISF is doing the opposite, and turning the people against the government in the process.
That places Iraq today much where it was in 2003-2005, immediately following the U.S. invasion -- rather than 2005-2008, when the civil war was going on. In the former, American forces were acting much the same way as the ISF. The Americans relied on sweeps and mass arrests with abusive stories emerging. Washington's political strategy of returning sovereignty and holding elections also backfired as it turned over the government to Shiite and Kurdish parties, while making Sunnis feel like they had no place in the new order. The result was growing resentment against the occupation by those who felt left out, and that bolstered the number of militants. The exact same thing is happening now. The Iraqi forces' tactics are turning the people away from the government, and increasing support for the insurgency. This is all made worse by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's autocratic tendencies, which have alienated many parties in the government. The country not only needs a better military strategy, but a political one as well that can end the ongoing protests and assure Sunni politicians that they have a role in running the country. Instead, things are going in the opposite direction. That doesn't mean things are heading towards another sectarian war, but violence is increasing and militants are finding a new life after they were almost extinguished. Iraq is a country that has suffered much more than most, with a series of wars, invasions, and sanctions that have ripped the society apart in the last three decades. Unfortunately, it is heading for more hardships.
Joel Wing is an Iraq analyst at the Musings On Iraq blog.
ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images
By Col. Robert Killebrew (U.S. Army, ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist
Few in the West understand the stakes in the Syrian rebellion.
For Iran, maintaining the Assad regime is a vital interest in its attempt to break out of its Persian Gulf isolation. For that reason, the Iranian mullahs have put skin in the game -- troops of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as well as Hezbollah fighters that are deployed alongside units of the Syrian regular army and irregular police forces -- and Iran shows every sign of being willing to do more. Barring any dramatic action by NATO or the United States, it is difficult to see how the Syrian opposition can prevail. The next two years may well see an emboldened Iran astride the Levant, a complaisant Assad regime propped up in power, Turkey and Jordan swamped with Syrian refugees, and Turkey and Israel confronted with a strengthened, hostile Iranian presence on their borders -- in Turkey's case, flanking a vulnerable Turkish salient extending across Syria and turning north along the current eastern border with Iran.
For Iran, propping up an Assad government in Damascus gives the mullahs access to an unmatched, dominating presence in the Levant -- that stretch of geography from Israel's southern border to eastern Turkey -- that touches every frontline Mideast country. As well, a Syrian-Iranian victory offers Iran an outlet to the Mediterranean and access to the near-obsolete Russian naval facility at Tartus, a base that has begun to figure again in Russian plans for its navy. Wars never really return to the status quo ante, and a victory for the Assad regime, and a concomitant rise in influence and access for Iran to this strategic geography, changes for the foreseeable future the power balances and political relationships in the region and perhaps the world.
The consequences of a Levant dominated by Iran and Iranian aggressiveness should be carefully considered. Any hope for Lebanese independence will be lost, and supply lines through Syria and the Bekaa Valley -- and possibly from Tartus -- to Hezbollah will be fortified by Syrian and Iranian air defenses to make Israeli strikes more difficult. Israel will be under more pressure than ever, and Jordan more vulnerable.
One of the more consequential results of an Assad victory, though, will be rising tensions between Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran, with an exhausted Syria playing a passive, pass-through role. (It is interesting that, as Iranian attention shifts northwestward, the Saudis and other Gulf states will likely become bystanders to Sunni-Shia competition, instead of their accustomed role at the center of regional politics.)
As recent events in Turkey show, the pro-Islamist policies of current Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan have caused an unusual tide of domestic dissent. In the face of an external threat, however, there is every reason to believe the nation Ataturk founded will unite, and the (majority Sunni) Turkish people will stand behind their ubiquitous flag. Turkey through Erdogan has been outspoken that Assad should go; the Turks have sheltered refugees and assisted rebel forces. They have earned Iranian enmity. In a post-rebellion Levant with Assad still in power, there can be little doubt what Iran's attitude will be toward Turkey. Even aside from the current proxy hostilities, the particular brand of Shia Islam that Ayatollah Khomeini installed after the Iranian Revolution makes mandatory Iran's enmity to the West, and to the Sunni sect. Iran's previous and more recent record of hostility to other governments, including aggression against States even outside the Mideast, is a good indication that it will be actively hostile to Turkey as well. Given free use of the interior of the Levant, with access to Russian arms and the resources of the Syrian state, Iran will be in an exceptionally strong geopolitical position to follow up its inclinations.
Competition between Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran can take many forms other than outright war, though that possibility cannot be discounted if the two states find themselves directly at odds, the Turks feel themselves at a geographical disadvantage, and Iranian hostility to Sunni Islam takes a more violent form. However, Iran has other options than all-out war. It is the world's leading sponsor of modern terrorism, that strange mixture of murder and crime, and it has become adept at mobilizing and directing global networks of terrorist organizations and criminal mafias (which are often one and the same). An Iranian campaign against Turkey could well take place in Turkish cities, mosques, schools, and market squares, while marshaling strong conventional forces to dissuade a Turkish response. At the same time, the IRGC will most probably conduct terrorist attacks in Western countries and the United States as a demonstration and a warning of the cost of supporting Turkey, which has been a stalwart and supportive member of NATO since the alliance's beginning.
How the West -- and Europe in particular -- comes to Turkey's defense will be the most severe test of the alliance in its history. Today, Turkey balances between both sides of the Bosphorus. A Turkish intellectual once said to me, "Our generation thought the way for Turkey was toward Europe and the EU. But the younger generation (of which Erdogan is a member) has figured out that the EU is a white, Christian club. They will face east." The loss of the Turkish "bridge" to the Mideast, with all the explosive energy and industry of this growing, modern country, would be a disaster for the West. European policymakers may be tested to support an ally or give in to Iranian terrorist blackmail; if the choice is the latter, Europe will effectively have confirmed the "white, Christian club" and will have withdrawn from the Mideast. The choice for American policymakers will be as stark: The IRGC has already attempted at least one terror attack inside the United States, and there is every reason to believe it would be tried again in the case of U.S. support for its Turkish ally and, indirectly, Israel as well. As the Iranian nuclear program progresses, the long-term potential of Iranian short- or medium-range nuclear missiles should not be discounted.
Whether Assad falls or stays in office will result in historic realignments in the Middle East and the Mediterranean littoral -- the Levant, from which the state of Syria was carved. As Iran ups the ante and the West fumbles for a response, chances increasingly favor Assad's survival as an Iranian puppet. Iranian suzerainty over Syria and a breakout into the Levant will give it an enormous geographical advantage from which to attack both Israel and Sunni Turkey, already a foe in all but name. The confluence of these political, cultural, and military events presages not only an uncomfortable near-term future, but also the potential for prolonged and bitter religious war through this century. American policymakers should consider carefully future U.S. options as events unroll in Syria.
My wife and I both recently read the two volumes of Ernie O'Malley's memoirs of the Irish war of independence and the subsequent civil war (thanks to a BD contributor recommendation), so we decided to watch the film Michael Collins. I was surprised at how cheesy and Hollywoodish the whole thing seemed, with a dull love story embedded in the middle, with the female love interest played woodenly by Julia Roberts.
But I shoulda know the jig was up during the introduction that gave the historical context, and it informed us of the "guerilla" war in Ireland against the British -- that is, with one "r."
I know, I know, we should have been watching The Wind That Shakes the Barley. But my wife already has seen it twice. The first time, we were in a theater, and she gasped when the priest refused communion to the anti-Free Staters. She said, "My mother told me that happened to her father" (in County Clare).
Maj. Charles Wagenblast, a military intelligence reservist, brought home this story from Afghanistan about an Afghan colonel:
One of the colonels that we both knew had been accused of raping a chai boy, badly. They all have chai boys, it's not some perverted thing, it's just what they do. Women are for juma. The only time you interact with your wife is on Friday, the rest of the time it's chai boys. He had been raping this chai boy, which is normal, but he had hurt him really bad. That caused the medical people to get involved and other forces. So he's there in front of the judge, who is an imam. It's religion mixed with law, the whole code of law would fit in a pamphlet and then there's the Koran there on top of it. Anyway, his defense was, "Honestly, who hasn't raped a chai boy? Ha ha ha." And the judge goes, "You're right. Case dismissed."
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Pete Thibodeau/Released/DVIDS
Remember my ruminating a couple of weeks ago about whether our strategic culture was shaped in part by the Old Testament?
Turns out someone who actually knows what he is talking about when he discusses the Bible is thinking about the strategic implications of the situation of Israel described in that book. In the new issue of The American Interest, former Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakheim finds parallels between Israel's current strategic situation and that described in the Bible. He predicts that:
"Israel could indeed find itself in a general situation paralleling that of its Biblical predecessors: without a geographically remote ally, and in a region no longer tightly tethered to and constrained by an extrinsic great power rivalry. Like its Biblical predecessors, Israel may be forced to confront its place in shifting local power balances among states that might be at times friendly and at other times hostile. It may also have to weigh alliances with and against powers more geographically proximate: Turkey, Iran, India, perhaps Pakistan (if it survives as a state) and even China."
Zakheim also is interesting in his discussion of the politics of the prophets: "The Prophets were consummate realists: Isaiah preached independent neutrality when it was appropriate; Jeremiah preached submission to the superpower when the external ‘correlation of forces' had changed."
The lesson for Israel he finds in the words of the prophets is this: "Realism in foreign policy, moderation in religious policy, openness in economic policy and equality in social policy may be the best path for the Jewish state as it confronts its uncertain future."
The more religious members of Eisenhower's cabinet asked that he begin its meetings with a prayer. Ultimately the cabinet decided to do so in silence. Once when Ike launched straight into a meeting, he was slipped a note, and then blurted out, "Oh, goddammit, we forgot the silent prayer." (P. 566, Jean Edward Smith's new biography of Eisenhower.)
That's what National Geographic says, in the last paragraph of a new article: "It may well be the first western European city with a majority of its residents from Muslim backgrounds."
Probably better for the magazine to have said it may be the first majority Muslim city in western Europe in about 700 years. If I recall my history correctly, in the 13th century, many western European cities, such Granada and Cordoba, were majority Muslim. I remember being told that Cordoba (AKA Qurtuba) was at one point the world's largest city and had 3,000 mosques. Not long before that, the entire island of Sicily was an Arab emirate. Dunno if it ever was majority Muslim, but I'd bet Palermo was.
(HT to Al D.)
By Emma Sky
Best Defense roving Middle East correspondent
Is this your first visit to Syria, the passport-control man asks me. No, I tell him, I came here once before over a decade ago. He stamps my passport. I had been very lucky to get a Syrian visa this time. The travel advice was not to visit. The Syrian regime is very wary of foreigners, fearing that journalists and spies are inflaming the situation further. I collect my bag and walk through customs, passing a poster, of modest size, of President Bashar al-Assad with the words in Arabic proclaiming: "Leader of the youth, hope of the youth."
I jump in a taxi. I ask the driver how are things in Syria. Things are fine, he assures me. There has been some trouble around the country, but things are OK in Damascus. As we drive, we chat. He points out the area where Druze live. With his hand, he waves in another direction to where Palestinian refugees live, and then again to where Iraqi refugees live. Alawites are over there and in villages. Christians this way and in villages. Sunnis are around 65 percent of the population. Kurds live in the north. Many different peoples live in Syria. I ask him how he knows who someone is or whether they are Sunni or Shiite. He tells me that he does not know and it does not interest him to know: There is no sectarianism here in Syria. We pass Damascus University. Outside there are lots of flags and pictures of Assad and his deceased father. Across the city, the Syrian flag is flying strong and photos of the president are omnipresent. As I ride through al-Umawiyeen Square, I see lots of young men and women gathering, holding Syrian flags. It is not a demonstration, a Syrian tells me; it is a celebration -- a celebration of the regime. Later, I watch the event on television. It has made the international news. Tens of thousands of Syrians have come out to al-Umawiyeen Square to show their support for President Bashar al-Assad in a lively celebration that includes pop singers and fireworks.
When I had visited previously, the city had been filled with huge pictures of Hafez al-Assad; and Bashar, his son, had been studying ophthalmology in London. The death of Bashar's elder brother, Basil, in a car crash, propelled him back into the family business of ruling Syria.
In the evening, I stroll down the street to a restaurant. It is very modern and Western. All-you-can-eat sushi for $20. I try to read my emails on my BlackBerry. I switch between two different networks, but can only receive GPS, not GPRS. The restaurant claims to have Wi-Fi. I ask the waiter. There is Wi-Fi, he tells me, but it is not working at the moment. Nor is Facebook. Internet access is limited.
I walk through Souq al-Hamidiyah in the old city of Damascus. It is a wide, pedestrianized street, two-stories high, and covered. It is buzzing with life. Store owners sit outside their shops, trying to entice potential customers. Traders sell their wares down the middle of the street. Walking with the flow of people, I emerge to find the Umayyad Mosque directly in front of me.
I go to the ticket office, pay the entrance fee for foreigners, and collect a hooded gray cloak to cover myself. The cloaks come in three sizes. A woman sitting there directs me toward the smallest size. The cloak stinks, and I wonder when it was last washed and how many women have had to wear it in the sweltering summer heat. I put the cloak on over my clothes, pulling up the pointed hood to ensure my hair is covered. I enter the Umayyad Mosque -- built on the site of a shrine dedicated to John the Baptist -- looking like a member of the Ku Klux Klan except dressed in gray, and carrying my shoes in my hand. I wander into the covered area where hundreds of people are praying, men in one area, women in another. I walk out to the courtyard. In one area, a group is seated on the ground. One man is kneeling, raising his arms, weeping "ya Hussein." The others follow suit, tears flowing, looking quite distraught.
The rest of this article can be read in its entirety: here.
Some lessons are hard to discern. Some aren't.
The lesson of Padre Alberto, I think, is that if you are a high-profile Catholic priest with a TV show, you shouldn't stick your hand in a woman's bikini bottom while lying alongside her on a beach, even if it is OK with her.
More bombings today in Iraq.
Meanwhile, a knowledgeable Capitol Hill staffer worries that we may see violence between Shiia factions later this year. He writes:
In the provincial elections, Maliki did very well, but it was largely at the expense of ISCI. ISCI, realizing this, reacts by doing a couple things-first, they reach out to their traditional constituency as any decent politician does (even in Iraq). Fine so far. Second, they try to frustrate Maliki's plans to prove him a weak leader. They really only have one great lever to do that (peacefully)-money. Maliki got votes because people saw him as a strong leader (justice and security) and because he's done a reasonable job spreading money around through tribal support councils, hand-picked ministers with buckets of cash to spend after certain conflicts (Basra, Mosul, Sadr City, couple other places). ISCI currently holds the keys to future funds because they control the Finance Ministry (Bayan Jabr, a lovely sociopath-not sure if you've ever had the pleasure of meeting him. He was the Interior Minister who had torture chambers in the basement. He got punished by being promoted to Finance Minister) and we are already seeing signs that, ostensibly due to budget cuts, support for Maliki's tribal councils and a couple other initiatives is being reduced. (By the way, a fun side effect of this is that the budget cuts have also provided an excuse to not absorb more SOI into the security forces. Not that huge numbers were going in already, but that trickle has generally stopped).
Maliki's problem is that he really only directly controls a couple things-the Special Forces (CTB) and the Operations Cells that have been set up in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, and I think one or two other places. But really, at the end of the day, he only controls the Special Forces and two, maybe three, Army divisions who's commanders he has on speed dial on his cell phone. The rest of the Army is Kurd or has heavy levels of former Badr Brigade folks or whatever, and the Interior Minister is developing into a political rival. So, his main avenues of response are likely to be to try to leverage US aid (and the embassy and MNF-I are being a little leery of this so as not to seem to be picking winners) or to go after some of his opponents. There have been a couple raids and heavy handed use of Iraqi Special Forces, and some of it seems to have been aimed at Maliki's political opponents, including ISCI supporters/officials (it's a little unclear).
If I am right, the budget crisis brings to a head, probably quicker than we would wish, some of the potential longer-term conflicts between the Shi'a groups, right before national elections (or even after). (By the way, I personally am expecting large numbers of allegations of election fraud in December/January-my belief is that the only reason everyone didn't try to fix the provincial elections is that all parties convinced themselves that they were going to win). So, question is, what do we do about it?
Some things seem obvious -- keep a tight leash on our embedded folks with ISOF, Iraqi intel agencies, and other forces, sign up a huge number of election monitors, and find ways to ameliorate some of the budget cuts. But on the last point, there is little appetite in DC to spend lots more money on Iraq reconstruction (for a variety of reasons). So I don't see a lot of good options on that front.
Thoughts? I realize this somewhat goes against the "Maliki as strongman" view, in that this analysis he doesn't actually control all the levers of power and won't until he wins more on the national level or takes decisive action with the security forces, which is difficult with us there and without securing his flank (like getting the Kurds on board). But I don't see that he has lots of other options if he wants to stay in power and "win" (however defined) the national elections. I'm not sure I see a good "win" for us out of this however it goes."
I'd be interesting in hearing from people who know Iraqi politics about this. I've been more worried about Maliki as a strongman, but I find this argument pretty persuasive.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.