February 18, 2016

Three New Realities in the Middle East for the Next American President

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON–There was a telling moment in last Saturday night’s Republican presidential debate that says a lot about America’s misadventures in the Middle East over the past 15 years. Donald Trump, the real estate developer and current front-runner who has done everything from calling for a ban on Muslim immigrants to ridiculing the war record of Senator and former prisoner of war John McCain, finally did something to cause the Republican establishment to turn on him. Questioned about the presidency of George W. Bush, Trump said that the Bush Administration “lied” its way into the Iraq war by hyping weapons of mass destruction; called the invasion itself a “disaster;” and reminded the audience that “the World Trade Center came down” on Bush’s watch. It was too much for the South Carolina audience, which booed him, and the other candidates, who unloaded on him. The irony is that the breaking point for Republicans was hearing Trump say something that was true.

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December 7, 2015

Resisting the Arabization of Islam in Indonesia

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON-It is a sign of the violent age we live in that there is a website in the United States devoted to updating daily deaths by gunfire. Last week, the Mass Shooting Tracker reported that in the first 334 days of this year, America had experienced 351 shootings in which four or more people were killed or injured — an average of more than one a day. And yet, aside from wondering what it will take for America to end its insane addiction to guns, few of these tragedies have garnered as much attention in the South Asian nation of Indonesia than last week’s horrific shooting in San Bernardino, California, where 14 were killed and 21 wounded at the hands of a young Muslim couple that were reportedly radicalized in Saudi Arabia.

For Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation – with more adherents of Islam than Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Jordan, Libya, Lebanon, and Palestine combined – the story of citizens returning home from the Middle East more extreme than when they left is an old one. But it is also a story generating fresh concern as a number of Indonesian Muslims are choosing to travel to Iraq and Syria to fight for the jihadists of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).

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September 28, 2015

What Putin Should Say at the United Nations

by Stanley A. Weiss

LONDON–Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin will address the United Nations General Assembly in New York for the first time since 2005. He is expected to talk about Russia’s increased military activity in Syria and the role that Russia hopes to play in battling the Islamic State–while possibly offering a new “grand bargain” to the West over Syria. Here is what Mr. Putin should say:

My fellow delegates: For the past year, from this podium and others, we have heard variations on the same message: that the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are a regional threat in the Middle East; that while their methods are brutal, ISIL is simply a “jayvee team” that grew out of al Qaeda in Iraq; that the real danger in the region is the government in Damascus; and that by training so-called “moderate” Syrian fighters while supporting a campaign of air strikes led by the United States and a coalition of willing partners, it will be possible to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State while bringing stability to Syria.

I have come here today because I think it’s time that we stop lying to ourselves.

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July 21, 2015

Iraq Is Not Iraq Anymore

by Stanley A. Weiss

So, this is where we are in America today: the wealthy son of a real estate developer who used five deferments to let others go to war in his place attacks, with a straight face, a United States Naval Academy graduate who spent five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp with complications from a broken leg and two broken arms suffered when his plane was shot down – and we treat it as just another political debate. During another time in our country, had somebody like Donald Trump dared to say that somebody like Senator John McCain wasn’t a war hero because he “got captured” — or that he “like(s) people who weren’t captured” — my guess is that more than a few fire and food inspectors would have been kept busy for reported “complications” at Trump Hotels across America.

But while many Americans will likely hear McCain’s high-minded response — that Trump doesn’t owe him an apology but should express sorrow to other prisoners of war and their families — I really wish more Americans would hear what the senior senator from Arizona is saying about Iraq instead. It is much more relevant to America’s future than any buffoonery babbling out of the billionaire blowhard from the Bronx.

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November 10, 2014

The Trap of Islam’s External Conflict

by Stanley A. Weiss

Washington–It was 35 years ago last week that a group of Islamic revolutionaries swept through the United States embassy in Tehran, taking 60 Americans hostage while opening a new chapter of violence in the Middle East. What began as a student movement to overthrow the Shah of Iran was quickly overtaken by Muslim extremists who had a very different, more fundamentalist agenda in mind. While the three decades of conflict that have defined the region since 1979 is rooted in a lengthy list of grievances and injustices, the blood-feud at its core — and the motivations of the increasingly barbaric cast of characters involved in the war in and around Syria — is an ancient schism that goes back to the very origins of Islam itself.

In fact, as the renewed bombing campaign by the United States in Iraq and Syria enters its third month on the heels of the news that the U.S. will roughly double its troop level in Iraq, it’s increasingly difficult to see a way forward for the U.S. or to feel that the growing web of extremism surrounding the conflict is anything but a trap. This is a holy war, a fight for the soul of Islam in endless search of new battlefields — which is precisely what it is has been in fits and starts since the year 632. In fact, a look back at roughly the same period of time from Islam’s earliest days — the three decades between the death of Mohammad and the rise of the Umayyed Dynasty on the same Syrian landscape scarred with suffering today — is to see that while the names and armies change, the essential conflict remains the same.

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June 23, 2014

Gertrude of Arabia and Her Kurdish Mistake

by Stanley A. Weiss

GSTAAD–From my residence in Gstaad, Switzerland, you can see the Bernese Alps silhouetted against the sky. The range is home to one peak in particular — the 2,632-meter Gertrudspitze — named after Gertrude Bell, the greatest woman mountaineer of the 20th century, who once survived 53 hours clinging to a rope against the sheer face of an uncharted cliff during a freezing blizzard. But as spectacularly daring as her alpine exploits were, it was in the deserts of the Middle East where Bell left her biggest mark.

In addition to being a remarkable mountaineer, Bell was also an Oxford-educated historian, adventurer, archaeologist, British foreign officer, and spy — a female Lawrence of Arabia (and a friend and colleague of Lawrence himself). She traveled thousands of miles through Arabia by camelback, while insisting on eating off fine china. She was the daughter of England’s sixth-richest family, yet spoke Arabic, Persian and Turkish like a native. And she was so knowledgeable and respected that one Iraqi sheik, asked about his own tribes’ geographic boundaries, referred the question to Bell.

It was Bell, as an officer of Britain’s post-World War I Arab Bureau, who helped fix the region’s boundaries after France and Britain carved it up in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. (“I had a well-spent morning at the office making out the southern desert frontier of the Iraq,” she once wrote to her father.) And it is Bell — who not only defined the borders but also trained and installed the young King Faisal as its (foreign) ruler — who has been hailed as “the Mother of the Faithful” and called “the architect of an unstable Iraq in the middle of an unstable Middle East.”

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September 16, 2013

Prabowo Could Be Indonesia’s Lee Kuan Yew

by Stanley A. Weiss

BALI, Indonesia–If public graft were a symphony, Djoko Susilo might be its Mozart. On a salary of $1,000 a month, the former head of Indonesia’s police academy managed to amass a fortune of $18 million. Earlier this month, Djoko was sentenced to 10 years in prison by the Jakarta Corruption Court for accepting a $2.9 million bribe for a contract that eventually lost the state $10 million.

On the same day Djoko was found guilty, a former Health Ministry official was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzling $1 million. Last month, the country’s top oil and gas regulator–revered as a “clean man in a corrupt industry”–was charged with taking $700,000 in bribes from an oil-trading company. All told, more than 360 Indonesian officials have been jailed on corruption charges since 2002, including cabinet officers, governors, Members of Parliament, and judges.

At a time when every Islamic nation in the Middle East seems to be on fire, Indonesia–which has more Muslims than Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Egypt combined–appears to be a relative oasis of diversity and democracy. On track to become one of the world’s ten largest economies, this southeast Asian nation is also set to witness the third consecutive direct election of its president next year after five decades of dictatorship. But in a country where more than half of the population lives on less than $2 a day, Indonesia’s deepening corruption at the highest levels isn’t just a threat to economic growth–it’s a ticking time bomb whose detonation could send shock waves across Asia, destabilize America’s China strategy and make the violence in Egypt and Syria pale by comparison.

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April 5, 2013

The Folly of Sanctions

by Stanley A. Weiss

Playing in theaters across the United States is a film called ” Upside Down, ” about an alternate universe where twin worlds sit stacked like bread in a sandwich, separated by opposite gravities. If our world could somehow have a similar twin, last month would have marked the tenth anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s willingness to abandon his nuclear program without a shot being fired. Headline writers would have sung the praises of the sanctions regime imposed by the United Nations, which compelled Saddam to abandon his push for weapons of mass destruction. Abu Ghraib would still be a little-known, nondescript prison on the outskirts of Baghdad. And 4,808 American soldiers would still be alive to celebrate birthdays, weddings and Little League baseball games.

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November 6, 2012

It’s Time for an Independent Kurdistan

by Stanley A. Weiss

WASHINGTON — Had the course of history taken a modest swerve, the United States and Kurdistan might have celebrated their independence on the very same day. It was July 4, 1187 — 825 years ago — that Saladin, Islam’s greatest ruler, defeated 20,000 outmatched Crusaders at the bloody Battle of Hattin. The victory ultimately delivered Jerusalem into the hands of Saladin, the crown jewel of an Islamic caliphate stretching from the shores of Tunis through Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus.

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November 15, 2011

Inside the Mind of the Atari Ayatollah

LONDON— Twelve centuries ago, the political leader who ruled the Islamic Abbasid Empire from his seat in Baghdad—named Abu Ja’far al-Mansur—was asked what it took to govern the massive swath of land that stretched from modern-day Tunisia to Pakistan. He said, “There are four people I need by my side:  the chief judge, the chief of police, the chief of taxation, and the postmaster—who keeps tabs on the first three and writes me reliable reports about them.”  Clearly, Iraq’s reputation as land of corruption, infighting and double-dealing has deep roots.

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