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It is always easier to shout in anger than to talk calmly and reasonably in moments of maximum pressure. It is always easier to condemn than to compromise with adversaries. It is always easier to fight than to negotiate, especially when you are strong and your enemies seem weak.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the United States has done a lot of shouting, condemning and fighting. This is particularly true in the Middle East, where we have fought a long, inconclusive war, declared an “axis of evil” and demanded rapid “democratization” on our terms. None of these actions has accomplished very much. Our counterproductive foreign behavior has seeped into our domestic politics — also dominated by shouting, condemning and fighting today. We are stymied at home and abroad because we have become unable to work through differences without personal attacks and government shutdowns.

Historic progress with Iran

Thursday’s dramatic announcement that the United States, Iran and five other nations have reached an agreement to curtail Iran’s threatening nuclear weapons program, in return for a lifting of international sanctions, is an example of what diplomacy, negotiation and compromise can accomplish. After more than 35 years of conflict, dating back to the Iranian Revolution, representatives from Washington and Tehran sat across the table from one another for intensive discussions aimed at improving relations between the two states.

The agreement announced on Thursday, if enforced, will open Iran’s nuclear program to the West, just as it reopens Western trade with Iran. Tehran will not assemble a nuclear weapon, and Washington will end its efforts to isolate a vibrant Iranian society. The truth is that Washington and Tehran are already working closely together in fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and last week’s agreement will allow the two states to find further opportunities for strategic cooperation.

Many critics correctly identify the Iranian state as a continuing sponsor of terrorists in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, the Palestinian territories and other areas. Leaders in Tehran refuse to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. They also deny the Holocaust and subscribe to numerous racist conspiracy theories about Jews and Christians. The Iranian government is not the most authoritarian or repressive regime in the Middle East — our friends, the Saudis, take that award — but the leaders of Tehran are clearly dangerous and antagonistic to many of our most deeply held values. We should not pretend otherwise.       

Misplaced priorities?

The point of diplomacy is that nations and peoples must learn to live with countries they do not trust, even ones that they despise. The world is a very diverse and dangerous place. The United States does not have the power, the knowledge or the moral claim to right the wrongs of every region and deny recognition to every government it disdains. Time and again, overreliance on military force and moral self-righteousness has produced unsatisfactory results. Just think of Vietnam, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya — all places where the United States deployed extensive force and spent billions of dollars over the last 40 years. It is very hard to argue that the United States achieved any enduring democratization in these countries, despite all the costs. Some of these countries, including Iraq and Libya, are more violent now than before American intervention.

Force is a necessary component of international relations, but it is not sufficient. Nor is financial assistance effective when local leaders are able to confiscate resources for their own purposes rather than the needs of a country’s population. The recent historical record shows that American force and money, although deployed widely, have delivered very little value in reforming societies.

President Barack Obama, elected to office in the shadow of the Iraq War and the 2008 economic recession, recognized these historical facts, as did many of the millions of Americans who voted for him. Mainline Republicans, including James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger said similar things. The United States needed to improve its foreign policy results by investing more heavily in negotiations and compromise with powerful adversaries, especially Iran. President Ronald Reagan had tried to do exactly that in the 1980s, and the time had come again to build a working relationship between Washington and Tehran for stability in the Middle East.

A powerful step in the direction of stability

The agreement reached last week was a powerful step in that direction and everyone, regardless of political party, should support it. Iran is still a threat to many American interests, but a working relationship that limits Iranian development of nuclear weapons and increases American access to Iranian society is good for the United States. We still cannot trust Iran, but an agreement that provides a basis for verification allows for some testing of suspicions. The Iranians would, of course, say similar things about the United States. The two adversaries need to start somewhere in building cooperation to replace escalating conflict. The negotiators of the recent agreement deserve praise for creating some reasonable hope.

Shouting, condemning and fighting always sound more righteous and pure, but politics is not about righteousness or purity. Talk to any veteran of the Iraq War and he or she will make this point through the countless stories of suffering, among all belligerents, witnessed firsthand. Effective politics turn on the ability to work with adversaries and construct agreements that make circumstances a little better.

The burden on critics of compromise, at home and abroad, is to offer a more promising alternative. If all you can offer is chest-thumping about the evils of the adversary, then get ready for more of the warfare abroad and stagnation we have seen at home during the last decade. Democracy is ultimately about getting things done by working with groups we love and hate, and with whom we share the planet.

Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History. Follow Suri on Twitter @JeremiSuri.

Harris Zafar, author of “Demystifying Islam,” spoke Thursday night at the #StoptheCrISIS event held in Welch Hall.
Photo Credit: Michael Baez | Daily Texan Staff

To better understand the threat ISIS poses, a UT professor and guest lecturer explained how they believe United States action during the Persian Gulf War contributed to the formation and spread of the terrorist group.

ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, is an extremist terrorist group that controls territory in Iraq and Syria and has a presence in other areas of the Middle East. The group adheres to a medieval ideology, and the beheadings it regularly carries out often go viral on social media after promotion on ISIS-operated Twitter accounts.   

Journalism professor Robert Jensen opened the discussion with a reading from the Bible verses in Matthew 7:1–5, which are about having a plank in one’s eye. Jensen said this concept is important to recognize hypocrisy inherent in United States military involvement in Iraq. Jensen referred to what he calls the crucial point in the Persian Gulf War history in 1990 and 1991.

“In 1990, [the history] got very clear,” Jensen said. “The regime of Sadam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The United States secured a resolution to authorize the use of force. In 1991, the U.S. drove out the Iraq force, but there are questions about whether coalition forces engaged in war crimes when firing on retreating Iraqi troops.”

Jensen said there are clear records of U.S. military leveling much of the infrastructure within Iraq.

According to Jensen, the U.S. military used force against the civilian population, which technically constitutes as a war crime.

“If a civilian’s infrastructure is decimated, that means the population is suffering, and you can exert more power,” Jensen said.

Jensen said further issues were fueled by the Middle East’s oil, which greatly complicated the politics of the situation. 

Harris Zafar, a guest lecturer and author of “Demystifying Islam,” said the group’s actions do not show the true values of Islam.

“Some will make this a religious matter that those joining ISIS are deeply religious,” Zafar said. “Can a group whose primary tool is chaos, destruction, disorder, mayhem be inherent of Islam?”

Sarah Khan, a religious studies and government sophomore, said she appreciated the discussion because of her own background. 

“My dad is Muslim … he wants to lay low and not run into trouble,” Khan said. “My main thing [is looking for] a solution for Islamophobia … Through moving forward in this problem, there are solutions, but we have to be willing to come together.”   

Governor-elect Greg Abbott speaks at a press conference following his victory over Wendy Davis.

Photo Credit: Marshall Tidrick | Daily Texan Staff

Gov. Greg Abbott declared Feb. 2 “Chris Kyle Day” in Texas to honor the decorated ex-Navy SEAL sniper killed last February. Abbott and legislators gathered at the Capitol on Monday to sign the proclamation honoring Kyle and other soldiers.

Kyle is a hero, Abbott said, and should be honored for his service to the country.

“[Heroes are people] who take risks and suffer consequences most Americans cannot comprehend, but which all Americans should deeply honor,” Abbott said.

Marine Corps veteran Eddie Ray Routh shot and killed Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield in February 2013 at a shooting range in Erath County, Texas. Kyle, who had 160 confirmed kills throughout his four tours in Iraq, was honorably discharged in 2009.

The film “American Sniper” recounts Kyle’s life and is nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Kyle is just one of many veterans worth honoring, according to Abbott.

“We have so many of those heroes from here in the state of Texas,” Abbott said. “One of them we are naming this day after, Chris Kyle, but as Chris himself would tell you, he’s one of a band of brothers and sisters who fought side by side for the greatest country in the history of the world.”

This is not the first time the Texas legislature has addressed Kyle’s service in Iraq. Legislators passed The “Chris Kyle Bill” during the 83rd legislative session in 2013. The bill requires that military experience, such as Kyle’s, be recognized on occupational licenses — making it easier for veterans to find jobs.

Daniel Hamilton, international relations and global studies junior and Marine veteran, said he hopes the day will help civilians remember that people in the military are fighting for civilians’ everyday freedoms.

“The things we have aren’t just here because we woke up and got them this way,” said Hamilton, who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “They are here because a lot of young men and women have done an extraordinary thing with their life.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said he supports Abbott in making Feb. 2 “Chris Kyle Day.”

“I appreciate his efforts to recognize this American and Texas hero whose bravery, courage and ultimate sacrifice reminds us all that our freedom has a price,” Patrick said.

The Arab Students Association declined to comment on Abbott’s declaration of Chris Kyle Day.

Although Hamilton said he does not think everything Kyle did was moral or representative of veterans as a whole, he said it is dangerous to judge someone’s actions when they were in a war and are not here to defend themselves.

“I understand the kind of conflicts people are having about the things that he said and the things that he did, but anything in war is not going to be clean-cut,” Hamilton said.

Jeremiah Gunderson, coordinator of student veteran services, said, regardless of the political controversy surrounding Kyle, he and the veteran services center are glad there is a day recognizing the efforts of veterans.

“I know there have been issues and controversy about him,” Gunderson said. “But for us, any time that we can emphasize the sacrifices of veterans and bring to life some of the issues that were seen in the movie as far as PTSD, we try to emphasize on that.”

Photo Credit: Connor Murphy | Daily Texan Staff

Editor's note: An earlier version of this column ran with a cartoon which inaccurately stated the name of the cartoonist. The correct cartoonist is Connor Murphy. 

In the world of international politics, allies and adversaries seem static for long periods of time, but then they shift quickly and decisively. American relations with Russia are an excellent example of this phenomenon. The countries were Cold War enemies in the 1980s, strategic partners in the 1990s, and now they are antagonists again. Iraq is another prime example. In the 1980s Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was an American ally, in the 1990s he became a strategic threat, and in 2003 Americans labeled him an enemy in the “Global War on Terror.” Britain’s great nineteenth century prime minister, Lord Palmerston, put it best when he observed that countries do not have permanent allies or adversaries, only permanent interests.

During the 1970s, Iran was one of the United States’ most important allies in the Middle East. Under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s dictatorship, the government in Tehran used its vast oil wealth to build a modern state that imported technology from abroad and contained both communism and Islamism in the region. The United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia worked closely with Iran to protect the flow of oil and maintain political stability.

When the Islamic Revolution in Iran overthrew the Shah in 1979 and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, the United States and Tehran became mortal enemies. Iran’s new leader, the Ayatollah Kohmeini, called America the “Great Satan.” Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan labeled Iran a “terrorist state” and they worked to overthrow the regime. Carter and Reagan also negotiated with the Iranian government when they felt the regime could facilitate the release of American hostages in Tehran and other parts of the Middle East. These negotiations, however, did not reduce the enmity between Washington and Tehran.

Iran’s effort to develop nuclear power, and an accompanying weapons capability, crossed both periods, before and after the 1979 revolution. Encouraged by the United States, the Shah used his wealth to purchase capabilities and resources from foreign suppliers, including France, Germany and the United States. Cut off from many of these suppliers after 1979, the Islamic government turned to other sources, including the illegal network run by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan. During the two periods Iran’s partners changed dramatically, but its nuclear ambitions remained consistent.

This often neglected history brings us to the current moment in relations between the United States and Iran. Years of sanctions and isolation have taken their toll on an Iranian society that struggles to access foreign supplies and technology. Internally, citizens have shown frustration with an Islamic regime that is unable to deliver an improved standard of living for its growing population. The Arab Spring began in Iran in 2009 with street protests against an election stolen by the Islamic leaders. In 2013, Iranians elected a foreign-educated president who promised reforms and an opening to the West, despite the continued domination of religious mullahs in the country’s politics.

The United States remains firmly committed to both the denuclearization of the Islamic government in Iran and democratic reforms. As it negotiates for these goals, Washington has found itself cooperating, at least informally, with the Iranians on a number of common strategic challenges. In Iraq and Syria, the United States and Iran share a strong interest in defeating the radical Sunni Islamic State. Washington and Tehran have shared intelligence and cooperated on the battlefield. The United States and Iran both support the new Shiite government in Iraq, and they are both training the new Iraqi military. Of course, the two countries are on different sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Iran continues to support Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad; but in the struggle for Middle East stability, Washington and Tehran find themselves frequently working together. 

The current negotiations between the United States and Iran on nuclear non-proliferation and economic sanctions reflect these circumstances. After months of intensive discussions, the two sides seem so close to agreement. Iran needs international trade and Washington is keen to offer that. Washington is determined to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb, and many in Tehran seem to recognize that a nuclear capability is not worth the overwhelming costs. 

What keeps the two sides apart is something other than the details, but a bigger question of trust. Can Washington and Tehran find a way to trust one another? Trust does not come overnight. It requires a sustained relationship, consistent goals and clear expectations. More than anything, it requires the personal outreach of leaders who are willing to put themselves on the line.

After more than 30 years of hostility, relations between the United States and Iran can and will shift when the leaders of these two powerful states commit to work together. Such a commitment will make the details fall into the place and the common interests rise above all else. To insure that outcome, we must maintain our toughness but also reach out. Americans want better relations with Iran, and we must show that, as we also show that we will not tolerate the extremism that brought us to conflict in the first place.   

Suri is a professor in the Department of History and the LBJ School of Public Affairs.   

President Barack Obama delivers his keynote address at the Civil Rights Summit in April.

Photo Credit: Charlie Pearce | Daily Texan Staff

During this current election season, Republican candidates repeatedly have tied their Democratic opponents to President Barack Obama, in an effort to make political gain. Greg Abbott, the Republican nominee for Texas governor, has blanketed the state’s television airwaves with a commercial attacking his Democratic counterpart Wendy Davis and her proposals as “just like Obama.” Abbott’s ad even pictures a desk labeled “Governor Barack Obama, Texas.”  Similar advertisements are running in other states across the country, especially in more conservative states.

While Obama holds about a 42 percent approval rating, which is low and makes him fodder for campaign attacks, does this mean his presidency has been unsuccessful? Quite the contrary, I would argue. The Obama years have been among the most important in recent political history. Historians cannot fully evaluate a president’s record until years after he (or soon maybe she) leaves office, executive papers become available, and time provides context. Obama has more than two years left in office, and a lot — both good and bad — can happen. However, I believe that so far, this president has scored many remarkable achievements that will benefit his historical legacy.

The election of Obama as our nation’s first African-American president is immensely consequential in and of itself. Obama’s triumph speaks volumes about the United States’ quest to overcome the most troubling aspect of its history — the legacy of slavery, racism and segregation. It marks a proud and moving moment for the country. Obama also handily won re-election in 2012, putting him in that group of presidents elected to two terms.

Upon his inauguration in 2009, Obama inherited a myriad of dire situations at home and abroad. Few presidents had entered office under more bleak circumstances. The United States faced its most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression, as the nation’s financial institutions, housing market and automobile companies appeared on the brink of collapse. The unemployment rate soared above 10 percent in October 2009 and the stock market went into freefall. The Obama administration worked to secure the financial solvency of the country’s big banks, General Motors and Chrysler, and won passage in Congress of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Although derided by conservatives as wasteful, the Recovery Act infused the economy with money in the form of government-sponsored work projects and unemployment relief. Furthermore, in 2010 Obama signed a detailed financial reform bill into law, legislation meant to guard against similar economic meltdowns in the future. Economic progress from the “Great Recession” has been slow, but steady. Unemployment recently fell to 5.9 percent, the lowest since the downturn. 

Internationally, Obama confronted a world weary of the bellicose foreign policy pursued by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Obama’s early opposition to the Iraq War propelled him to the Democratic nomination and presidency. He helped end this war in 2011 and is winding down the Afghanistan War by the end of this year, much to the approval of a war-weary American public. Obama approved the operation that led to the death of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, and his policies have destroyed much of al Qaeda’s effectiveness. Certainly the current situation in Iraq is precarious, as ISIS threatens to overtake that country. The Obama administration has assembled an international coalition against ISIS and begun a heavy bombing campaign aimed at helping Iraqis and their allies defeat the terrorist group. While some on the left remain wary of our involvement and others on the right criticize the president for not doing enough in the conflict, Obama wisely has followed a cautious course, recognizing the necessity of confronting ISIS but being careful not to become too involved in another quagmire in the Middle East. 

Obama has pursued policies that will have long-lasting effects on the country, the most notable being the passage of the Affordable Care Act. While Obamacare, as it is commonly called, remains controversial, it is nonetheless a historic achievement. Presidents for decades unsuccessfully attempted to push legislation through Congress that would ensure healthcare for more Americans. The Supreme Court’s upholding of the law and Obama’s re-election guarantee that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay. Obama has furthered the cause of gay rights, from ensuring federal prosecution of hate crimes, to repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, to becoming the first president to support same sex marriage. Obama’s environmental regulations have been marked by a dedication to combat climate change. Obama has made stellar appointments to his cabinet and to the judiciary, most notably with Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina on the Supreme Court, who along with Elena Kagan, will bring strong progressive voices to the bench for decades.

Certainly, Obama has made mistakes and challenges remain. The White House has promoted its accomplishments poorly and allowed critics to have the louder voice, most notably with Obamacare, and has failed in its promise to be transparent to the public. Drone strikes, the NSA surveillance and the continued operation of Guantánamo Bay Prison in Cuba have disappointed civil libertarians. The president’s failure to punish Syria after crossing a so-called “red line” made him appear weak on the international stage. Obama and his party are partly responsible for the gridlock tormenting Washington, although Republicans share equal, if not more, blame. Indeed, he has encountered unrelenting opposition from Republican politicians who from day one planned to make him a “one-term president” and pundits on talk radio and Fox News who daily have excoriated him in vicious ways.

Obama faces many concerns in the final two years of his presidency, namely immigration reform, economic growth, fiscal policy and turmoil in Iraq. His ability to meet such challenges will go a long way in determining his overall legacy, something all presidents consider as their terms wind down. Obama’s past accomplishments suggest that Republicans like Abbott disregard his political capabilities at their own peril. Sometime in the future, when we look back on his presidency through the wide lens of history, being called “just like Obama” may be a compliment for which candidates strive.

Briscoe is a history graduate student from Carrizo Springs. 

Photo Credit: Albert Lee | Daily Texan Staff

Fighting terrorists never works out as we hope. The threat of violent extremists is not new to this millennium. Fears of small, organized groups undermining authority at home and abroad go back at least to the 19th century in Europe, North America and other continents. The fears of harm usually exceed the realities of danger, but the dangers are real nonetheless. Although terrorists have never brought down a major power, they have caused major dislocation and suffering in countless societies (including Russia, Germany and China.)

The contemporary Middle East has endured decades of terrorism since at least the early 1970s. The extremism has silenced moderate voices and the violence has splintered governing institutions into tribal tyrannies. The disintegration of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen and other countries, and the rise of al-Qaeda and ISIS, among others, are recent manifestations of this historical process. The terrorists have hijacked the region’s politics and replaced civil society with gang warfare. Citizens are defined by the group they belong to; disloyalty is punished with death.

Recognizing that terrorism in the Middle East threatens the broader international community, Americans have spent decades trying to fight it. The nature of American counter-terrorism has shifted in regular fashion between two schools of thought.

One school, the “development” approach, has emphasized investments in education, health and economic growth to encourage citizens of terrorized societies to embrace good government. The goal has been to build a grassroots constituency for civil authority and a broad cohort of citizens with the skills to run a prosperous, open society. The Peace Corps, the World Bank, USAID and many other American-sponsored organizations pursue this approach of treating the poor conditions that appear to produce terrorism.

The second school, the “combat” approach, defines terrorists as foreign armies that must be defeated. Proponents of this approach deploy overwhelming force to kill and capture terrorist leaders, destroy their resources and punish their supporters. Through aggressive intelligence work, including the torture of suspected terrorists with valuable information, the combat school aims to grind terrorist organizations to dust, making them more pathetic than threatening. Unmanned aerial vehicles (“drones”), Army and Navy Special Forces and CIA covert operatives are the lead actors for those who seek to go in hard and fast to defeat the extremists.

In our long history with counterterrorism, Americans have alternated their emphasis between these two schools, experiencing the frustrating limits of each. In the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, the United States focused on development in the Middle East, encouraging investments in business enterprises, the rule of law and education throughout the region. Each of these areas of development showed some progress, but powerful actors (including the oil-rich leaders of the Gulf states and wealthy individuals like Osama bin Laden) also expanded their support for terrorist groups. While regional development contributed to a new generation of entrepreneurs, it also inspired a new generation of extremists among those who turned to religious fundamentalisms rather than more cosmopolitan ideas.

Following the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, Americans decisively favored force over development. That seemed necessary to stop the groups that had shown a desire and a capability of killing thousands of citizens. Force also appeared to produce results in the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. After 2003, when insurgencies in both countries exposed the limits of this strategy, Americans accepted that they could not totally destroy the terrorists, but they hoped to keep them scattered and under heavy pressure. Even as he withdrew American forces depart from Iraq and as troops withdraw from Afghanistan, President Barack Obama held to this strategy through the use of increased drone attacks on terrorist leaders, and special covert interventions, including the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May 2011.

Of course, the use of force against terrorists has not proven more successful than prior development efforts. Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are more dominated by terrorists today than they were in late 2001. The United States has spent billions of dollars training counter-terrorist forces in the region and bombing from the air, but it is not clear if these actions have killed or inspired more terrorists.

There is no proven solution to terrorism in either the development or the combat schools. Ignoring the problem, as many Americans might prefer now, is no solution either, especially when the fate of an economically vital region like the Middle East is at stake. The future of American counterterrorism policy will involve new innovative ways to mix the promise of development with the power of combat. The United States has failed to strike the correct balance in recent decades. Finding the pathways to civil order between corrupting handouts of foreign aid and alienating attacks from the air – that is the supreme challenge for a new generation of policy-makers. It is an intellectual opportunity for our best minds to help bring some order to a violent, fragmenting world.

Suri is a professor in the Department of History and the LBJ School of Public Affairs.  

Photo Credit: Michael Baez | Daily Texan Staff

As part of the ongoing Austin Arts and Service Celebration, BR McDonald, founder of the Veteran Artist Program, moderated a discussion Friday at the SAC with Austin-based veteran artists Jenn Hassin and Jeff Moe.

McDonald served as an Arabic linguist and member of the special operations forces during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but decided to pursue an acting and singing career after his deployment. He said many other veterans also want to have careers in the arts.

“The mission of [Veteran Artist Program] is to encourage and promote the veteran artists,” McDonald said. “We focus on disciplines of art such as visual arts, writing or literature, performing arts, filming or video and interactive media. For now, veterans consist of those who were artists before an enlisting or drafting, became artists while serving and those who return home and use it as healing and expression.”

McDonald started the Veteran Artist Program in Baltimore in 2009. More than 1,000 artists have come to associate with the group over the last five years.

Austin native Hassin served as an Air Force dental technician in England until 2009. She then enrolled at St. Edward’s University as a pre-dental student but switched her major to art. She now owns her own art studio after working for Austin-based production company Rooster Teeth post-graduation.

One of Hassin’s art piece, “Letters of Sacrifice,” will move from Austin to the Pentagon, where it will be on display for a year.

“When I started this project, I went to my commander first to ask what he would have written had I died,” Hassin said. “He explained that for this letter, the military has a template. So I took the letter and turned it into being about a man. From there, I took the template and did one for each of the 6,809 that have died since the start of the war.”   

Moe served as an Arabic linguist and as part of the 82nd Airborne Division and U.S. Army Special Forces. He is now UT’s student veteran outreach coordinator after graduating from the University with a degree in social work and Middle Eastern studies.

“I have found music to be therapeutic,” Moe said. “During my time in Iraq, I found a guitar and it allowed my mind to focus on something different. The arts allow veterans to organize and be creative to express something in a different light.”  

Now is the time to recognize Kurdistan

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of weekly blog posts designed to build on Professor Jeremi Suri's foreign policy column, which runs every Tuesday.

Professor Jeremi Suri wrote last week that the U.S. needs to adopt a new approach towards fighting terrorism. Instead of applying punitive sanctions or military force, he argues, the U.S. should promote economic development and education.

Indeed, as Suri wrote, American interventions in the Middle East have been absurdly ineffective. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein led to eight years of Nouri al-Maliki and a sectarian conflict that enabled the rise of ISIS, neither of which benefits human rights, democracy, or America’s commercial interests. And despite having spent over a decade fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the U.S. hasn’t come any closer to eradicating the spread of Islamist extremism. Clearly, Suri is right that there is a better way to promote democracy, cultivate free markets, and defeat the hydra of fascistic terrorism.

That being said, there’s no need to plunk billions of dollars in aid and investments into unstable countries with untrustworthy leaders. The European Investment Bank has been doing exactly that for years with zero success, and America’s financial support for Iraq and Afghanistan has only managed to prop up kleptocrats like al-Maliki and Hamid Karzai. Instead of trying to build up failed states, the U.S. should empower those that have already laid the foundations for a free and prosperous society. To that end, creating an independent state in Iraqi Kurdistan should be America’s top priority in the Middle East.

Iraq’s Kurdish region is situated in a tinderbox of insurgency, nestled between the country’s border with Syria and its ISIS-controlled western provinces. Yet in spite of its tenuous location, it has become a safe haven for ethnic minorities like the Yazidis and the Circassians, many of whom have been displaced by Iraq’s inner turmoil. It has a strong and American-armed security force that has played a critical role in the war against ISIS. Its capital, Erbil, is a thriving and rapidly developing metropolis. It supports other crucial U.S. allies in the region, including Armenia and Israel. And, most importantly, its democratically elected government fiercely rejects any form of religious fundamentalism or ethnocentric extremism.

In light of these virtues, an independent Kurdistan would become a beacon of hope for the region. It would provide military and diplomatic support to counterterrorism efforts, and its success could even motivate movements in favor of secularism and democracy across the entire Middle East—a true Arab Spring. But in order to do so, it must first achieve full sovereignty over its internal affairs and full representation in international agencies like the U.N. and the WTO.

Fortunately, granting Iraqi Kurdistan that sort of legitimacy is a far simpler proposition than it was in the past. The Turkish government was once resolutely opposed to Kurdish independence, as Kurds claim sovereignty over a large part of eastern Turkey. However, in recent years, Turkey has come to view Iraqi Kurdistan as a potential homeland for its own Kurdish minority, and it recently established a consular office in Erbil to promote deeper diplomatic ties between the two nations. Similarly, the U.S. resists recognizing Iraqi Kurdistan on the grounds that Kurdish secession would kill its dream of forming a multiethnic democracy in Iraq. That goal has clearly failed, as Iraq has only become more fragmented and lawless since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

For Kurdistan to languish in stateless purgatory while Syria and Iraq have collapsed and ISIS runs amok is an affront to human decency and an indefensible failure of American foreign policy. But Iraq’s current circumstances and Turkey’s declining recalcitrance have given President Obama the perfect opportunity to rectify this injustice. Whether or not he takes it will have major consequences for the future of the Middle East.

Shenhar is a Plan II, government and economics sophomore from Westport, Connecticut. He is a research assistant to Suri.

Photo Credit: Albert Lee | Daily Texan Staff

The United States possesses more force and money than any other country in the world, yet it does not seem to be enough. Over the last decade our society has deployed the best-trained soldiers and the most advanced weapons across the globe, but challengers — state and non-state — are multiplying. Over the last decade the United States has spent billions of dollars to build governing institutions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Pakistan and other nations, yet they all appear to be falling apart. It is hard to argue that we have not done enough. It often looks like we have done too much — perhaps making regions like the Middle East worse by our efforts.

These observations are motivating a new isolationism movement/sentiment among both Republicans and Democrats. According to this argument, the United States should tend its own garden, using its force and money exclusively at home to address domestic needs. We have tried to change the rest of the world, isolationists claim, and we have failed because too many foreign societies cannot be changed. We should accept their tyranny, poverty and violence and simply build walls to insulate ourselves. We have, of course, literally done this on our southern border with Mexico. Americans fought the Cold War to tear down the Berlin Wall; now they are building walls of their own.

The problem with isolationism is not the criticism of American foreign policies, but the suggested alternative. Walls fail to insulate and they weaken those living within them. Walls also abandon the possibilities for improving international conditions and helping people suffering from the worst forms of repression. Isolation falsely assumes that if force and money cannot get us what we want, then nothing will.

There is another way, and that should be the true agenda for innovative policy-making in the next decade. American force and money have focused primarily on punishment and prohibition. We use our weapons to kill terrorists and intimidate possible adversaries. We use our money to support individuals that enforce order in foreign societies. For all the talk about “development” and “nation-building,” the vast majority of foreign policy resources go elsewhere. We have spent the last decade throwing our weight around, shooting first and asking questions later, buying the friends we think should be in charge abroad.

As one would expect, this bullying behavior has made us feel strong — it always draws cheers from frightened American citizens — but it really makes us weak. Too much force turns potential friends into enemies. No one likes to be pushed around. Too much money encourages selfishness and corruption. No one works hard for their community when a foreign patron places millions of dollars in their pockets. The paradox is that American force and money have contributed to the failed states, extremism and terrorist violence that threaten us today.

What if we used our force and money differently? The missing ingredient is persuasion. We have allowed American bullying to make the United States appear unlikable, even threatening, to many people who could be persuaded otherwise. This is evident from the thousands of young citizens throughout the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Latin America and even Europe who want the kind of wealth and freedom that Americans flaunt, but believe that Americans will never let them have it. We appear too self-centered, too disrespectful and too hypocritical in the eyes of precisely those people who demand real democracy abroad.

Isolationism will only reinforce this view of the United States. More effective policy requires the deployment of force and money through institutions that actually make people’s lives better: law-abiding police officers, uncorrupt state institutions, local businesses and effective schools. The United States has, of course, tried to fund these kinds of institutions in the past, but they have always received far less attention and support than the direct applications of force. Washington has also allowed local dictators — Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan and Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq, as two examples — to distort these efforts for personal gain.

It does not have to be that way. If the American military can kill with precision, civilian agencies should be able to direct our knowledge and money into the hands of citizens who really want to make their lives better, working as our potential partners. This has never been easy, but we have done it with some success after the Second World War and in the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The time has come to re-examine these experiences and think long and hard about how we can make our force and money more persuasive abroad. We cannot abandon the punishment of terroristic enemies, but we must get better at helping potential friends. If we abandon this mission, we will soon run out of the force and money necessary to defend ourselves.

Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History. Follow him on Twitter @JeremiSuri. 

Photo Credit: Shelby Tauber | Daily Texan Staff

Our nation’s founding fathers disagreed about many issues: slavery, the presidency and foreign policy. They almost universally shared a belief about the military: It was a necessary part of the “common defense,” but it had to remain small and strictly under civilian control. The founders detested the British soldiers forcibly quartered in American homes before the revolution, and they believed that bloated militaries had undermined good governance in Britain and other societies. For the founders, a democratic military had to come from the people, it had to remain subservient to Congress and the president, and it had to disperse as soon as it defeated its foes.

Our current arrangements for the U.S. military would be unrecognizable to the founders. Instead of a small military mustered only in extreme moments, we now have one of the largest permanent military establishments in the world, and Americans spend far more on the armed forces than any other nation. Our soldiers are no longer part of society at large; they are a professional force trained and educated differently (and sometimes better) than the rest of the population. The U.S. military is organized in the Department of Defense (created in 1947), with a civilian cabinet secretary and a military chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Although they loyally follow the orders of the president, they are now one of the most powerful political and economic forces in our country, influencing everything from industry and education to basic research and popular culture. The U.S. military is, in fact, one of the few government institutions that is widely revered among citizens.

This shift from the tiny military of the 18th century to the huge behemoth of today was probably unavoidable. As the United States grew, it needed a larger military. As the United States confronted more diverse and technologically sophisticated foes, it needed a more advanced set of defenses — including a wide array of nuclear, intelligence and special operations agencies. We cannot turn back the clock and return to the somewhat simpler world of the founders. Nor would most of us wish to do that. We benefit enormously from the wealth that accompanies modern American power.

A historical perspective on the military is important because it reminds us of two important things. First, American institutions of national defense evolved in response to specific threats and pressures over time. These institutions have served our country well, but they will only continue to do that if they adjust to new threats and pressures. Cheering for the military and thanking our soldiers for their service is appropriate, but it is not nearly enough. In a world filled with multiplying small groups that have the capacity to harm American assets and large states that have more powerful weapons, we must ask if our current military is designed appropriately to protect our current interests. Why do we build so many large and expensive weapons systems that are outdated before they even hit the battlefield? Why do we continue to send massive amounts of military aid to regimes that support terrorist groups? Why do we continue to underemphasize the kinds of nation-building activities that our military has found itself doing time and again in Afghanistan, Iraq and other dangerous conflict zones? A historical perspective on the military reminds us that internal changes in institutions, training and expectations are necessary for success, even when you are the biggest and strongest on the planet. 

Second, and perhaps more important, the growth of the U.S. military has meant trade-offs for American democracy. Enhanced security is necessary for freedom, but it can also undermine freedom. This was a core insight from the founders that we are wise to remember. Those of us who believe in a strong but democratic military should be forthright in expressing our concerns about the excesses of surveillance, interrogation and even torture that the U.S. military has perpetrated in the last two decades. The continued existence of a military-run prison for alleged terrorists, denied due process, in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, contradicts America’s basic tenets of freedom. And it matters to all of us because the powers used in these ways are not easily controlled by the elected officials who are supposed to manage them. A military that overreaches, out of the best intentions, imperils democracy. 

We need to talk about these issues, especially at our universities. As we enter a new set of wars in Iraq and Syria, we owe ourselves a serious analysis of what kind of military we need and what kind we should have in a democracy. Young people should play a vital role in this public discussion. You are the ones who serve in the military, and you are the ones who will live with the consequences. The founders were correct: Military affairs require vigilant civilian attention.

Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History.