Iran, Mitchell, Lebanon and Iraq

Syrians were split on the Ahmedinehad victory. Damascene friends called me to express their contentment when they believed that Mousavi was slated to win, as al-Jazeera suggested early on. I was with family in Latakia over the weekend when the Ahmadinejad landslide was announced. Many people in that coastal city smiled happily when they asked me what I thought of the Iranian election results. They were particularly gratified to have an American reaction. I plan to write about my trip soon and about the building boom taking place in Syria.

Juan Cole presents Six arguments for why the Iranian Presidential Election Was Stolen.

Gary Sick: “The willingness of the regime simply to ignore reality and fabricate election results without the slightest effort to conceal the fraud represents a historic shift in Iran’s Islamic revolution. All previous leaders at least paid lip service to the voice of the Iranian people. This suggests that Iran’s leaders are aware of the fact that they have lost credibility in the eyes of many (most?) of their countrymen, so they are dispensing with even the pretense of popular legitimacy in favor of raw power….”

Tritta Parsi: “It’s one thing if Ahmadinejad had won the first round with 51 or 55 per cent. But this number … just sounds tremendously strange in a way that doesn’t add up … It is difficult to feel comfortable that this occurred without any cheating.”

(Addendum) T_Desco does not argue that Ahmeddinejad won, as I first wrote. See his correction of me in the comment section. Brian collects arguments that he won fairly, also in the comment section below.

T-Desco explains the elections here, here and here.

The WSJ argues that Ahmadinejad’s victory is good for Syria. (Thanks T_desco and Norman)

“Not all big Arab states stand to lose with Mr. Ahmadinejad’s victory. Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, Mr. Obama’s top Mideast envoy, is in Damascus Saturday for talks with Syrian officials.

With Mr. Ahmadinejad likely staying put in Tehran, Washington may have more interest in trying to woo President Bashar Assad away from Iran’s orbit. That could translate into leverage for Damascus amid U.S.-Syria negotiations. For instance, Syria wants the U.S. to loosen economic sanctions imposed on it for alleged links to terror financing.”

Also in the WSJ

“… Sen. Mitchell flew into Damascus after a stopover in Beirut, …. A big part of the thaw has been the dramatic rehabilitation of Syria’s Mr. Assad in the eyes of many Western and Arab officials.

The Bush administration and its Western and regional allies spent years isolating Syria. ….. But Mr. Assad also proved instrumental in a Qatar-backed peace plan last Spring that ended a long political standoff in Lebanon. Shortly after, he entered into indirect peace talks with arch-foe Israel.

Mr. Assad’s hands-off approach in recent months in Lebanon has encouraged some Western officials and analysts into thinking he’s eager to play a supporting role in cooling Mideast tensions further.

The Lebanon elections, though they went against Syria, may help pave the way for more productive talks with Washington, says Joshua Landis …

If Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad holds onto power in Friday elections, Mr. Assad could be a useful ally for Washington in pressuring Iran into meaningful talks. Sen. Mitchell’s stopover follows lower-level visits by U.S. diplomats in recent weeks. U.S. officials are pressing for help stabilizing the Iraq-Syria border and for support in Arab-Israel peace efforts….”

Mitchell Cites Syria’s Role in Mideast Peace Effort
Published: June 13, 2009

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — George J. Mitchell, the Obama administration’s Middle East envoy, said during a visit with Syrian leaders here on Saturday that the country had a vital role to play in forging peace in the region…..

“Syria has an integral role to play in reaching comprehensive peace,” Mr. Mitchell said. Syria and the United States share an obligation “to create conditions for negotiations to begin promptly and end successfully,” he told reporters after a 90-minute meeting with President Bashar al-Assad in the capital, Damascus.

A senior Syrian official described Saturday’s talks as “very positive” and said Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Assad also discussed the security situation in neighboring Iraq. …..

“I’ve held substantive discussions with President Assad and on the full range of serious issues in our bilateral relationship,” Mr. Mitchell said. “We seek to build on this effort to establish a relationship built on mutual respect and mutual interest.”

Despite the diplomatic overtures, the Obama administration renewed Bush-era economic sanctions against Syria last month as a way to keep pressure on the country to cooperate.

The following article by Scarlett Haddad (copied below in part) explains why Hizbullah and Syria are content with the election loss in Lebanon. It reviews a number of parliamentary seats that Hizbullah and Syria withdrew candidates from, resulting in March 14th or Jumblatt victories. It also argues that Saudi Arabia and Syria are coming to terms on Lebanon, as they did in the 1990s. Saad Hariri will preside over the government, but Syria’s and HIzbullah’s political interests will be respected. This makes sense for it goes a long way to explain the outcome of the elections as well as the behavior of all sides and accords with the new dynamic of compromise that is taking hold in the region now that Bush is gone.

If Walid Jumblatt is the bellwether of Lebanese politics, his recent mia culpa is significant:

Walid Jumblatt today spoke about his mistakes in being aggressive in criticizing Bashar Assad in the past and he said that Syria is Lebanon’s natural depth and he said that 1559 was the worst thing to happen to Lebanon … and that all that must be put behind them as they all work together as one …

Et si le Hezbollah ne voulait pas vraiment gagner les élections? (Thanks Why Discuss)
Par Scarlett HADDAD | 13/06/2009 l’Orient (Read the whole article.)

….De plus, le Hezbollah avait aussi saisi avant tous ses autres partenaires au sein de l’opposition le désintérêt de la Syrie à l’égard du processus électoral libanais. Alors que certains alliés de la Syrie annonçaient sans relâche que Damas comptait entrer dans la bataille électorale par le Akkar, la Békaa-Ouest et Tripoli, rien ne s’est passé jusqu’à la fermeture des bureaux de vote. Même auparavant, certains piliers de l’opposition s’étaient plaints auprès des dirigeants syriens d’un afflux d’argent en provenance d’Arabie saoudite, contrairement à l’accord conclu entre le roi Abdallah d’Arabie, l’émir du Qatar et le président Bachar el-Assad au cours de leur rencontre au sommet du Koweït, lorsqu’ils s’étaient mis d’accord pour ne pas intervenir dans le cours des élections libanaises. Là aussi, les autorités syriennes n’avaient pas réagi, tout comme elles n’étaient pas non plus intervenues dans la composition des listes de l’opposition, laissant quasiment tomber certains de ses alliés. De l’aveu de certains chefs de l’opposition, la Syrie n’a donc rien fait pour favoriser une victoire de ses alliés. Et lorsque la question a été directement posée aux dirigeants syriens, ceux-ci ont laissé entendre que le résultat des élections ne compte pas, à partir du moment où les relations entre Damas et Washington sont en train de s’améliorer, tout comme celles de Damas et de Riyad. Les autorités syriennes seraient donc prêtes à ouvrir une nouvelle page avec Saad Hariri devenu Premier ministre, du moment que leurs relations avec les dirigeants saoudiens sont devenues plus cordiales. D’ailleurs, comme toujours, c’est Walid Joumblatt qui a donné le ton en déclarant hier au Akhbar que « Saad Hariri peut dialoguer avec la Syrie, et cela est inévitable ». Mais plus important que les considérations internes libanaises, la Syrie a des défis régionaux et internationaux à relever. Elle s’apprête à relancer le processus de négociations avec Israël et souhaite montrer de bonnes dispositions à l’égard de l’Occident. Pour elle, les élections libanaises ne constituent pas un enjeu très important, d’autant que ses alliés libanais restent forts et en mesure de s’opposer à d’éventuelles décisions qui visent à les marginaliser…

En somme, les résultats des élections législatives arrangent un peu tout le monde, l’équilibre des forces est pratiquement inchangé, ce qui rassure l’Occident, et la victoire indiscutable de Saad Hariri lui permet de jouer un rôle nouveau sur la scène interne et régionale. Seuls ceux qui espéraient un véritable changement sont déçus…

US could lift Syria sanctions: Carter

DAMASCUS (AFP) — Former US president Jimmy Carter said on Thursday he believed the new US administration of President Barack Obama could lift sanctions on Syria and upgrade ties by sending an ambassador to Damascus.

“I think the United States will respond… to any positive steps that Syria takes,” Carter said at a press conference after meeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.

“There’s no doubt on my mind that the American president wants to have full and cooperative relationships with Syria, and that involves the lifting of sanctions in the future and that also involves the appointment of an American ambassador to Damascus,” he said.

State media accuses Israeli PM of rejecting all peace initiatives by conditionally accepting Palestinian state.

Netanyahu’s speech:

Obama’s response:

“The president welcomes the important step forward in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a written statement. “The president is committed to two states, a Jewish state of Israel and an independent Palestine, in the historic homeland of both peoples. He believes this solution can and must ensure both Israel’s security and the fulfillment of the Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations for a viable state, and he welcomes Prime Minister Netanyahu’s endorsement of that goal.”

Syrian state media on Monday slammed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for “torpedoing peace” in a speech accepting a Palestinian state but shackled by unacceptable conditions.

“Netanyahu’s speech torpedoes all peace efforts” wrote the mass-circulation Al-Watan in its report of Sunday’s speech.

Al-Baath, the mouthpiece of Syria’s ruling party, commented: “Netanyahu has confirmed that he rejects the Arab initiative for peace along with all the initiatives and resolutions of the Security Council relative to peace” in the Middle East…..

Another Syrian newspaper, Ath-Thawra, said Israel appeared to be far from thinking about peace.

The Israeli leader’s speech “shows it is useless to await any change in the programme of Netanyahu or the Israeli government,” it said.

“The United States, which is working for peace, finds itself today with two alternatives: they can either go back and maintain the status quo marked by crisis, which we hope doesn’t happen, or assume their responsibilities in pushing Israel to talk seriously in order to bring about peace and security.”

Suleiman: Netanyahu’s Rigid Stance Calls For More Arab Unity, Safeguarding the Resistance

“The Israeli stance expressed by PM Netanyahu is characterized with rigidity, whether in dealing with the issue of peace, or on the level of settling the issue of Palestinian refugees. [This] calls on Arab leaders for more unity and to safeguard the spirit and willingness of the resistance,” Suleiman said.

Iraq and Syria

U.S. commander sees fewer foreign fighters in Iraq
Mon Jun 15, 2009

BAGHDAD, June 15 (Reuters) – Iraq has seen a significant fall in the number of foreign fighters arriving to battle U.S. and local forces, and efforts by neighbouring Syria are starting to bear fruit, U.S. General Ray Odierno said on Monday….

“We have seen a significant decrease in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq in the last eight to 10 months,” Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told a news conference alongside the Iraqi defence and interior ministers. “For the most part it has just been a trickle … We have seen some fighters coming through Syria, but Syria has been taking some action over the last few weeks, so hopefully that will continue,” Odierno said. Violence in Iraq has dropped sharply in the past year…..

Stable Iraq Key to U.S.-Syria Dialogue
By Peter Harling
1 June 2009, Defense News

Engagement with Syria has been featured among the U.S. administration’s prom­ised foreign policy changes, yet so far a mechanism for coopera­tion has elud­ed both sides. Renewed negotiations with Israel must wait for the political dust to settle in Jerusalem.

Damascus is unlikely to ac­cede to U.S. requests for shifting poli­cies toward Hamas or Hizbollah, and certainly will not do so before signifi­cant progress has been made on oth­er fronts. The United States has renewed sanctions.

That leaves the topic of Iraq, where both sides expected the road to be smoothest because of apparent shared interests. In­stead, U.S. officials accuse Dam­ascus of allowing — if not abet­ting — the infiltration of militants across the border to Iraq.

Securing this border was sup­posed to be the most straightfor­ward of issues, but the question is more complicated than it first appeared and will require a broader discussion about politi­cal reconciliation in Iraq and a better understanding of Damas­cus’ fluctuating relationship with Sunni armed groups.

Different Perspective

When Iraq’s former regime col­lapsed, Syria openly supported those resisting the occupation, busing militants across the bor­der and creating an image that has shaped U.S. opinion ever since. However, the intensifying conflict transformed Syria’s threat perception from one cen­tered on the U.S. agenda for the region to one more concerned about Iraq’s breakup, sectarian dynamics, the influx of refugees and the uncomfortable expansion of Iranian influence.

Syria’s policy also was driven by the government’s desire to de­flect its own jihadi problem and rid itself of home-grown activists while placating the jihadi move­ment as a whole. That policy eventually backfired: Those who didn’t die came back more expe­rienced, better connected and ful­ly indoctrinated — more of a risk than before.

As Iraqi Sunnis turned away from foreign volunteers and Dam­ascus adjusted its own posture, Syria lost both a useful outlet and the indulgence of the jihadi com­munity. A series of violent inci­dents culminating in the 2008 bomb attack in the Syrian capital underscored this shift.

Syria’s dysfunctional border controls are also an important factor. Corruption has long been rife, enabling cross-border net­works to operate with cover from high-ranking officials. Moreover, technology is deficient; Damas­cus only recently introduced a centralized computer system to monitor entries and exits.

Despite an antiquated approach to illegal crossings, notable ef­forts have been made, such as en­gaging tribes, improving routine controls, and even cracking down on corrupt magnates in order to better protect Syrian territory.

Ironically, Syrian officials now complain that the United States and Iraq aren’t doing enough on the Iraqi side to seal the border.

Two issues stand out. First, the ambiguous links that Washington accuses Damascus of enjoying with al-Qaida and other armed groups provide Syria with far bet­ter intelligence on the former and more leverage on the latter than the search-and-destroy approach typically pursued by the United States. In other words, Syria may think twice about severing ties that bolster its security and en­hance its political clout,

Second, opening and closing the tap of insurgents going into Iraq likely will remain a valuable pressure point for Damascus in future negotiations with the United States. That said, while U.S. demands on Syria are clear, Syria’s expectations are clouded in strategic ambiguity.

There are other obstacles to ef­fective security cooperation. The uneven quality of U.S. intelli­gence, particularly human intelli­gence from questionable Iraqi sources, along with a propensity to favor short-term benefits over long-term infiltration, has gener­ated skepticism in Syrian quar­ters. It will take time before enough trust exists for the Syrian regime to allow the U.S. to by­pass political interlocutors and engage the intelligence communi­ty directly.

Perhaps most important, no matter what is done in Damas­cus, U.S. efforts to eradicate the insurgency will only go so far without a political breakthrough in Iraq. Less violence and suc­cessful elections in Iraq have led only to token reconciliation and little reform. Simply arresting ever more opponents is not a so­lution while fundamental issues go unaddressed. Security steps are not what will make the biggest difference in Iraq now.

Political ones will. And that is also the arena where cooperation with Syria may prove the most fruitful.

Today, Damascus has a keen in­terest in Iraqi stability, after hav­ing paid a high price for promot­ing the reverse. Moreover, at a time when its economy is danger­ously ailing, it wants to become an outlet for Iraq’s oil products, a supplier for its emerging markets and a route for transit trade. De­veloping economic ties will en­hance Syrian buy-in.

Officials also have realized that an unstable Iraq serves Iran, not Syria, and now see value in recon­ciliation. If Washington pressures Baghdad to implement a genuine reconciliation process, Syria can help by using its access to impor­tant insurgent players. In that context, sifting unredeemable al­Qaida elements from more main­stream resistance will become easier. Only if it is built on a shared vision, with promise of sustainable economic benefits rather than immediate security gains, can the U.S.-Syrian dia­logue on Iraq succeed.

By Peter Harling , the Damascus-based director for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon with the International Crisis Group, an independ­ent, nonprofit, non­governmental organization working to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.

Why is Dennis Ross being ousted as Obama envoy to Iran? (Thanks T_desco)
By Barak Ravid, Haaretz Correspondent

Dennis Ross, who most recently served as a special State Department envoy to Iran, will abruptly be relieved of his duties, sources in Washington told Haaretz. An official announcement is expected in the coming days.

The Obama administration will announce that Ross has been reassigned to another position in the White House. In his new post, the former Mideast peace envoy under President Bill Clinton will deal primarily with regional issues related to the peace process.

Washington insiders speculate that a number of reasons moved the administration to reassign Ross. One possibility is Iran’s persistent refusal to accept Ross as a U.S. emissary given the diplomat’s Jewish background as well as his purported pro-Israel leanings. Ross is known to maintain contacts with numerous senior officials in Israel’s defense establishment and the Israeli government.

Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem surmised that another possibility for Ross’ ouster is his just-released book, “Myths, Illusions, and Peace – Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East.”

Ross, who co-wrote the book with David Makovsky, a former journalist who is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argued against a linkage between the Palestinian issue and the West’s policy against Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Ross and Mokovsky also raised the possibility of military action against Iran.

“Tougher policies – either militarily or meaningful containment – will be easier to sell internationally and domestically if we have diplomatically tried to resolve our differences with Iran in a serious and credible fashion,” they wrote.

Another possible reason for the reshuffle could be Ross’ dissatisfaction with his present standing in the State Department, particularly given the fact that Washington’s two other envoys to the region – George Mitchell, who is overseeing the Mideast peace process; and Richard Holbrooke, who is dealing with Pakistan and Afghanistan – wield great influence and are featured prominently.

A diplomatic source in Jerusalem speculated that perhaps Ross preferred to work for the National Security Agency, which answers directly to President Barack Obama, and would thus be considered a more enhanced role. (…)

Comments (60)

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51. Akbar Palace said:

Offended said:

My assessment is that Obama would love to meddle if it was feasible for him. It’s not a principled nor a cowardly stance, it’s pure calculation…he knows that eventually he would need to engage with Iran through diplomacy…and decided they need to bomb the snot out of the Iranians……………….to liberate them.

Dan said:

Our brothers and sisters all over Iran are now fighting for themselves and for us. They are sacrificing their young lives for our children. There was an Englishman who promised his nation only blood, sweat and tears but they won over the beast. We will win too because we have no other choice. Please pray tonight deep in your heart for our Persian blood brothers!


I would say that since most Iraqis feel they are better off with democracy as opposed to the Baathist government of Saddam Hussein (despite their grave sacrifices), and considering that the Iranians (according to Dan) are “sacrificing their young lives for [their] children”, I would say most Iranians would prefer a strong stand against the current Iranian regime as opposed to the “hands off” approach that you and our High IQ president seem to prefer.

Of course, to me, coddling thugish, undemocratic regimes is stupid.

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June 17th, 2009, 1:37 pm


52. offended said:

looking at the balance sheet, the ‘sacrifices’ the iraqis had to endure in order to get ‘liberated’ surpasses the benefits by many folds. Saddam has gone but welcome to sectarianism, corruption…etc…And there’s no guarantee that the situation won’t plummet back to even worse than Saddam when the US army leaves.

Likewise, any person with a decent IQ would realize that a military adventure in Iran (come to think of it, your zionist backside wants iran to be bombed for any reason, to hell with protesters), such an adventure would be disastrous. In case you’re not aware, let me break it to you: the US can NOT invade Iran. Period. There’s no enough money, no enough political capital invested. No enough troops. Nothing. Nada.

Besides, who and what the US is going to install in place of theocracy? you really think the Iranian people will simply approve and trust whoever the US picks?

Engaging in diplomacy is the only option. Maybe it’s a shortcoming on the Zionists/neocons part that they can’t talk/negotiate/communicate…etc.. But the president with the high IQ knows better.

And by the way equating diplomacy with ‘coddling with thugs’ is ….quite dumb.

And please, stop feigning concerns about the Iranian people. Like you really care for what they wish.

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June 17th, 2009, 2:25 pm


53. Peter H said:

GWB would have unequivocally supported the Iranian protester’s calls for freedom, democracy and a tranparent count of their votes, and at the same time, used this opportunity to condemn the theocratic government of Iran.

True, and the result would have been to hand Ahmadinejad a golden opportunity to slander the protesters as American lackeys, not to mention cripple the elites in the Iranian system (like Rafsanjani) who\’ve turned against Ahmadinejad.

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June 17th, 2009, 5:52 pm


54. Akbar Palace said:

Offended said:

Engaging in diplomacy is the only option.

Says who? Sorry, I know you and Syria Comment promotes negotiations with despots, but most of the free world doesn’t.

BERLIN (Reuters) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Monday there were signs of irregularities in Iran’s presidential election and urged a transparent examination of the results.

PARIS (AFP) — French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday branded Iran’s election result a fraud as the international outcry over the security forces’ crackdown on the opposition in Tehran intensified.

Canada ‘deeply concerned’ by reports of voting irregularities in Iran: Cannon

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June 18th, 2009, 10:58 am


55. Peter H said:

Akbar Palace, you miss the point: Obama has not become more forcefully involved in supporting the opposition because that would be a gift to Ahmadinejad, for the reasons I gave above. Germany, France & Canada aren’t laden with the same baggage that the United States carries in Iran: they don’t routinely project power into the Middle East; they don’t pursue a containment policy against Iran, they didn’t orchestrate a coup d’état against a man who is now revered Iranian hero, and they weren’t the key backer of a reviled Iranian dictator.

Frankly, I trust the judgment of Iran’s opposition leaders more than yours:

“Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, said she has no complaints about Obama’s rhetoric. “What happens in Iran regards the people themselves, and it is up to them to make their voices heard,” she said in a telephone interview from Geneva. “I respect his comments on all the events in Iran, but I think it is sufficient.” ”

“But some Iranian human rights activists backed Obama’s cautious approach. “I think it’s wise for the U.S. government to keep its distance,” said Hadi Ghaemi, a New York-based spokesman for the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, which wants the international community not to legitimize the Iranian regime’s claim that Ahmadinejad won the election. While the Obama administration ought to express support for the Iranian opposition’s safety and for human rights in Iran as the regime clamps down on dissent, any expression of political support for the protesters would only “instigate the cry that the reformers are somehow driven and directed by the United States, whether under [former President George W. Bush] or under Obama, and there’s no reason to give that unfounded allegation” any chance to spread.”

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June 18th, 2009, 2:35 pm


56. Akbar Palace said:

Peter H.,

Thanks for the reply. Fair enough.

Of course, I don’t buy the “baggage” thing, the “project power into the Middle East” thing, nor do I (and most Iraqis) regret the US conducting regime change in Iraq.

If the US didn’t “lead the way” on that, Saddam and his cute little boys would still be sitting on their deadly thrones.

I think the US has a duty promoting freedom in the world. Judging from this website, the Palestinians and Syrians aren’t crying to Germany for recognition, they looking to the US.

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June 18th, 2009, 3:11 pm


57. EHSANI2 said:


It is touching to see that you care and that you are keeping track of how “most Iraqis” feel.

Is Sean Hannity and mark Levin still believers in this democracy promotion endeavour?

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June 18th, 2009, 4:11 pm


58. Ford Prefect said:

You might want to add to your list of peace and democracy promoters in the Middle East the defunct and blood-thirsty homo sapien species of Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby, Daniel Pipes, and Elliott Abrams – to name just a few. The Iraqis sure love them passionately.

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June 18th, 2009, 5:04 pm


59. Akbar Palace said:

It is touching to see that you care and that you are keeping track of how “most Iraqis” feel.


As an esteemed contributor to this website, I don’t need to remind you of the many Hamas and Hezbollah supporters on this website.

So, just as a suggestion, I’d skip the whole “caring” issue altogether. That went down the toilet a loooong time ago.

The US and our allies care about a stable ME. Unfortunately, Saddam Hussein didn’t get the memo. That the Iraqis gained some semblance of freedom and democracy was a by-product of regime change. Apparently more Iraqis prefer the current regime to Saddam’s.

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June 19th, 2009, 12:09 am


60. Ford Prefect said:

“The US and our allies care about a stable ME.” Yes, that is a fact but for some administrations, not all – a fact anyone would have observed even after listening to Daniel Pipes all day long (yuk, I feel sick already).

For example, and sadly enough, the last defunct and discredited US administration proved right the opposite. They just somehow missed the “stability” memo. (But wait, they probably just couldn’t read it due to severe retardation).

So thanks to Bush, his Dick, and their mentally-deformed supporters Iran today is stronger, N. Korea is nuclear and the Middle East is boiling with instability and extremism. Some kind of caring I would say.

One should be thankful that an new administration with the right intentions is finally at work.

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June 19th, 2009, 3:41 am


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