The Obama Straddle


State Department spokesman Jen Psaki: Budding young war criminal.

State Department spokesman Jen Psaki: Budding young war criminal.

Why isn’t Barack Obama pouring troops and weapons into Iraq in response to ISIS’s dramatic offensive?  Most liberals assume that the president has at last learned the lesson of Libya and other such misadventures, which is that bombing not only doesn’t work, but that often backfires, spreading the fires of Islamic terrorism all the faster.  Obama is thus getting in touch with his inner non-interventionist.  But State Department spokesman Jen Psaki’s daily press briefing on Tuesday suggests something more complicated.  Here is what Psaki had to say when a reporter asked her reaction to Iraqi Prime Minister’s charge that Saudi Arabia has been supporting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham both “financially and morally”:

PSAKI: Well, that’s the opposite of what the Iraqi people need right now, and we have continued to make the case to Prime Minister Maliki – Ambassador Beecroft met with him just yesterday – that taking steps to govern in a nonsectarian way, to be more inclusive to increased support to the security forces is what his focus should be on.  And this is obviously the opposite of what that is.  It’s inaccurate and, frankly, offensive.  

QUESTION: Would you say that –

QUESTION: Sorry. What –

QUESTION: – he is fanning the flames of sectarianism

QUESTION: – is inaccurate?

PSAKI: The comments that he made.

QUESTION: What is inaccurate and offensive?

PSAKI: The comments he made.  I would –

QUESTION: About Saudi?


QUESTION: Would you say that Maliki is basically fanning the flames of sectarianism?

PSAKI: I think I would say there’s more that can be done to be more inclusive and govern in a nonsectarian manner.

QUESTION: And one more – sorry James – on this.  Saudi Arabia called the events in Iraq a Sunni revolution, adding that the sectarian – that the exclusionary policies in Iraq over the past three years are behind the recent unrest in the country.  Do you agree with the Saudis on this?

PSAKI: Well, I – the way we see this is that the situation is complex, and there are some tribes and key local Sunni politicians have joined with the Iraqi Government.  Others are working with ISIL through violence to destabilize the government.  Those working with ISIL are, of course, supporting terrorists who adhere to an extreme ideology, which believes that Shia should be killed based on their sect alone.  Obviously, our view is that there needs to be – the way that Iraq is governed by the leaders needs to take into account the legitimate grievances of all of the people.

QUESTION: That means you don’t agree with them that what’s happening is a Sunni revolution?

PSAKI: I think I made my comments clear.

But what, precisely, is inaccurate about Maliki’s statement?  Administration officials have long complained that Saudi Arabia, not to mention Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, were looking the other way while it came to private donations to Al Qaeda and like-minded groups.  In Hillary Clinton’s 2009 Wikileaks memo, the then-secretary of state complained that “while the kingdom … takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority.”  The memo goes on to note that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide” and that various restrictions put in place by Riyadh “fail to include multilateral organizations such as the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), Muslim World League (MWL) and the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY).  Intelligence suggests that these groups continue to send money overseas and, at times, fund extremism overseas.” While shutting down some channels, in other words, the Saudis have left others wide open.   David Cohen, under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, made essentially the same point just this past March.  Although Cohen’s focus was on Kuwait and Qatar, he made it clear that the problem was regional:

Donors who already harbor sympathies for Syrian extremists have found in Kuwait fundraisers who openly advertise their ability to move funds to fighters in Syria.  Constraining this flow of funds is particularly challenging in an era when social media allows anyone with an Internet connection to set himself up as an international terrorist financier.  We see this activity most prominently in Kuwait and Qatar, where fundraisers aggressively solicit donations online from supporters in other countries, notably Saudi Arabia, which have banned unauthorized fundraising campaigns for Syria.  

Nothing had changed. While the Saudis continued to impose certain restrictions, fundraisers have no trouble getting around them. Money continues to flow to Al-Nusra, ISIS, and other such groups from sources throughout the peninsula.  So why does Jen Psaki now describe Maliki’s remarks as inaccurate? Admittedly, Psaki is an unscrupulous hack who will say anything to advance the latest State Department line.  But her words are revealing nonetheless.  What seems to be going on here is that the Obama administration is engaged in a delicate balancing act between defending Iraq and appeasing the Persian Gulf forces that fund ISIS and side with it in its battle against the Baghdad government.  Obama is wavering in between the pro and anti-ISIS elements, neither supporting the effort to tear Iraq into pieces nor opposing it either. In a bizarre but nonetheless interesting item on the Washington Post website, Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University, observed:

Many of the most vocal Arab backers of Syria’s rebels support what they cast as an Iraqi popular revolution against an Iranian-backed sectarian despot.  They equate the Iraqi uprising with the Syrian uprising, as a Sunni revolution against a Shiite tyrant, and actively oppose U.S. or Arab intervention against it.

ISIS may be a mite over-aggressive, but its heart is basically in the right place — or so Saudis, Kuwaitis, et al. seem to believe.  Lynch quotes a popular Saudi professor named Ahmed bin Rashed bin Said as declaring, “We must support the Sunnis of Iraq not only because they represent the Arab and Islamic face of Iraq, but to save Syria and limit Iran and protect the Gulf.”  He also quotes Faisal bin Jassim al-Thani, a Qatari journalist: “Hezbollah and the United States and the United Arab Emirates are all in Maliki’s trench while the people and the ulema and the honest ones are with the revolution.” ( Actually, Lynch notes, the UAE has withdrawn its ambassador from Iraq and is now critical of Maliki.)  According to a McClatchy news service article, Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al Khalifa, a former Qatari ambassador to the U.S, recently tweeted:

For the West or Iran or the two working together to fight beside Maliki against Sunni Arabs will be seen as another conspiracy against Sunni.

Psaki’s failure to forthrightly condemn the characterization of the ISIS offensive as a “Sunni revolution” indicates that the State Department is struggling to accommodate the Saudi perspective.  So Obama is not heading off in a new direction after all, but standing by his old policy of endlessly appeasing Persian Gulf interests.  Or, to put it a bit more kindly, he’s trying to head off an all-out sectarian war involving Iraq, Iran, Syria, and possibly the gulf states too by reassuring Riyadh that he continues to tilt in its direction.  But it still means the same thing, i.e. countenancing mass murder or at least not opposing it too strenuously.  Has American policy ever been more bankrupt?

Postscript: The lead story in today’s Wall Street Journal (“U.S. Signals Iraq’s Maliki Should Go”) quotes White House spokesman Jay Carney as saying that regardless of whether Maliki stays or someone else takes his place, “we will aggressively attempt to impress upon that leader the absolute necessity of rejecting sectarian governance.”

Sorry, but what government is more aggressively sectarian than Saudi Arabia’s?  Riyadh terrorizes propagates ultra-Sunni Wahhabism throughout the world, it terrorizes its own 15-percent Shiite minority into submission, and in March 2011 it sent troops to crush a democratic protest movement among Shiites in neighboring Bahrain.  Non-sectarianism is an absolute necessity for Iraq, yet Saudi Arabia gets a free pass.  How do these people look themselves in the mirror?

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