Reading Between the Teleprompter Lines

What Obama was really thinking during his Iraq remarks.

There are times when I listen to U.S. presidents that I imagine giant bubbles appearing over their heads connected by tiny dots -- just like in cartoons. But these bubbles contain their real thoughts.

I see these bubbles every time U.S. President Barack Obama appears publicly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Russian President Vladimir Putin. They say things like: "I really can't stand these guys. Shimon Peres and Mikhail Gorbachev, where are you?"

As I listened to Obama's carefully constructed update on Iraq on Thursday, I couldn't help but imagine what the president was thinking and, perhaps more importantly, feeling. The president's five points were an effort to find a balance for the next steps in Iraq that was not too risk averse and not too risk ready. Call it the Goldilocks speech -- rational and logical, not too hot and not too cold.

But that logic and rationality masked a fierce determination and commitment to certain assumptions. Let's call it the Bubble Conversation. Forget the words you heard. Here's what Obama was probably thinking -- and these are the thoughts certain to drive his policy toward Iraq in the 1,000 or so days that remain in his presidency.

What he said: "American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq."

What he was really thinking: "If you think I'm getting involved in another trillion-dollar social science experiment to intercede in Iraq, you're crazy. I'm the extricator in chief. I get America out of unwinnable wars, not into them. If you wanted one of those, you should have voted for John McCain."

What he said: "But what's clear from the last decade is the need for the United States to ask hard questions before we take action abroad, particularly military action. The most important question we should all be asking, the issue that we have to keep front and center, the issue that I keep front and center, is, what is in the national security interest of the United States of America?"

What he was really thinking: "The world isn't coming to an end. Don't try to convince me that it is. We just went through this with Ukraine. This town lost its collective mind: a new Cold War, a Russian takeover of Ukraine, a new Hitler on the march, a complete collapse of the post- Cold War 1991 arrangements in Europe. And guess what? None of it took place. I kept my head, though, and responded effectively. And we'll do it this time too. ISIS isn't taking over the world. And I'm not going to respond as if it were."

What he said: nothing on Syria.

What he was really thinking: "Don't get your hopes up for a more muscular response from me on Syria. It was no coincidence that I didn't mention it in my formal remarks. The fact is, I don't know what to do. Syria is a mess. And having willfully avoided direct U.S. military intervention there, I'm not interested in doing it now. I'll ramp up support to carefully vetted opposition groups and have military assets in place for air and missile strikes if warranted and necessary. But I won't be guilted or pressured into serious intervention, let alone saving Syria because I'm worried about losing Iraq."

What he said: "Now, it's not the place for the United States to choose Iraq's leaders. It is clear, though, that only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis."

What he was really thinking: "Mr. Maliki, get the hell out of here. I can't say it because if I do and he doesn't leave, I'll end up repeating the mistake I made with Assad. But this guy's got to go. He's damaged goods. I'm hoping that Sunnis and other Shiites will start to make noise and build pressure and we'll make it clear too that any serious support will depend on his departure. We now have some time to let the pressure build on him, rather than on us. I'll also see where Iran is on this. They may be prepared to press Maliki, but I'm no fool. I know their vision for Iraq isn't ours."

What he said: "The United States will lead a diplomatic effort to work with Iraqi leaders and the countries in the region to support stability in Iraq. At my direction, Secretary Kerry will depart this weekend for meetings in the Middle East and Europe, where he'll be able to consult with our allies and partners."

What he was really thinking: "I really hate all this Middle East stuff. This is a broken, angry, dysfunctional region. And the United States is stuck in the middle of it. I care much more about the middle class than the Middle East. But I know I need to pretend. There's oil, nukes, terrorists. But these Middle Eastern leaders are worse than the Republicans, Israelis, and Palestinians: all yours, Mr. Secretary. My main goal is to reach a deal with Iran on the nuclear issue to prevent an Israeli strike, make an American one unnecessary, and see if I can't work with Iran to cool Iraq down too, and then get the hell out of town. This region won't produce solutions to anything, just outcomes. You know what? I just had a terrific thought that makes me want to smile. In less than a thousand days, all of this will be Hillary's problem."

Win McNamee/Getty Images


Iran Is the Problem, Not the Solution

The White House is mulling whether Tehran can help it defeat the jihadi threat in Iraq. But a U.S.-Iran alliance would be a disaster for Washington and the Middle East.

The United States is now exploring whether to cooperate with Iran in the fight against radical Sunni jihadists in Iraq. Such an alliance would be a grave mistake: It would alienate Sunnis throughout the region and confirm a prevalent conspiratorial view that the United States is bolstering the Shiites, a minority in the Arab world, against the majority Sunnis, playing an old imperial power game to control the region and its natural resources.

Violent jihadi sectarianism is only part of the story in Iraq today. Iran, like President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Damascus, is making the case that Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries of the Persian Gulf are the real problem -- the wellspring of terrorism in the region -- and that Iran is therefore the natural ally of the United States.

But this is only half-true. Iran has also nurtured Sunni jihadists when it was convenient to do so, and it has also spent years cultivating Shiite sectarianism. In its effort to dominate the region after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran fostered staunch Shiite chauvinists, first in Iraq and more recently in Syria. By doing this, Tehran gave up completely on an earlier ecumenical attempt to make Shiism acceptable to Sunnis under the banner of joint resistance against the "forces of global arrogance" -- that is, the United States, Israel, and the Arab monarchies of the Gulf.

Iran's policy began in Iraq, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Tehran's protégé and anointed leader, led the country in a blindly sectarian and brutally authoritarian fashion, singling out Sunni rivals for persecution. Iran's anti-Sunnism was further revealed when it backed the Assad regime in Damascus. Here Tehran mobilized significant financial, ideological, and military resources, including Shiite paramilitary forces such as Hezbollah, to fight for Assad's survival while he wantonly continued to kill and brutalize Syria's Sunni population. The net effect is that Iran has alienated the Sunnis of the Arab world, some of whom now express support for the most extreme forms of Sunni radicalism.

Twitter is ablaze with Sunnis from across the Arab world praising the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) for "liberating Mosul" and defeating the "Safavids," a pejorative term for Shiites. Such sentiments are a manifestation of the exasperation Sunnis feel and should not be construed as genuine identification with jihadism. The Sunni mainstream realizes that the jihadists are as much a menace to them as the jihadists are to the rest of the world.

Having now lost the Sunnis, Iran needs the United States to help secure its gains in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere. Washington shouldn't give Tehran what it wants. Several facts have been obscured in the dominant narrative about what is taking place in Iraq today, which doom any potential joint U.S.-Iranian "war on terror."

First, the uprising in Iraq and Syria is not exclusively a jihadi effort but rather a general Sunni revolt against political disenfranchisement and persecution. The radical Sunni jihadists, who form a part of this uprising, are also equally brutal toward other Sunni Muslims who don't share their beliefs and politics -- ISIS aspires to conquer Riyadh as much as Baghdad. U.S.-Iranian cooperation in the fight against ISIS would consolidate all the Sunnis under the jihadi banner and would confirm the jihadi narrative that the "Crusaders" and the "Persian Zoroastrians" are conspiring to destroy Islam, a confirmation that would help boost recruitment to the jihadists' cause.

Second, Iran and Syria can be expected to embrace these jihadists when it serves their short-term interests. Both countries have had dealings with radical Sunni jihadists in the past, as when the two countries set them loose to fight U.S. troops in Iraq. More recently, Assad emptied his prisons of jihadists and has focused his military offensive on more moderate brigades to encourage the radicalization of the Syrian opposition.

Finally, Iran and Iraq's army and Shiite militias don't need the help of the United States to fight this war, which is not only about defeating jihadists but also about keeping Sunnis disenfranchised. Helping the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces and Shiite militias do battle with Sunnis -- even if they are radical jihadists -- is not America's concern.

America's concern should be stopping ISIS from moving its forces south toward Saudi Arabia. ISIS's jihadi proto-state, which has been recruiting successfully in the kingdom, could attempt a push into northern Saudi Arabia from Iraq's Anbar province -- and from there, it is only a few hundred miles to the oil fields or to Riyadh. Such an attack would test the mettle of the Saudi armed forces.

ISIS's ideologues consider the Saudi royals to be apostates and enemies of God as much as the Shiites. The group's propaganda videos highlight Saudi recruits tearing up their Saudi passports and identity cards, an act meant to deny the political legitimacy of the kingdom as well as the boundaries of the territorial nation-state. And many of ISIS's recruits hail from Saudi tribes (Otaibah, Shammar, Harb, among others) whose tribesmen also form the core of Saudi Arabia's military units. This raises questions about the Saudi army's reliability in battle.

Securing the oil reserves of the Gulf is in America's national interest -- heeding Iran's siren call to secure its regional domination and sectarian clients is not. Tehran has been as complicit as the jihadists in the sectarian violence that has gripped the Middle East. An American alliance with Iran will be seen as a war against the Sunnis and will condemn the region to an imperial politics of a past era, when outside powers bolstered minorities at the expense of the rights and privileges of the majority -- a recipe for endless rage and strife.