If a U.S. President embraces a “Do Nothing” foreign policy long enough, inaction might eventually prove to be the right course. It has only taken five years and close to 200 rounds of golf in office for President Obama to do it, but his inaction in Iraq to date following significant ISIS ground gains could prove to be right.
However, with that said, it now looks like he is on the brink of screwing up his one shot at a limited foreign policy success by taking action.
A number of factors are at play in determining what the right policy is for Iraq.
Obama supporters still eager to blame former President George W. Bush for today’s mess in Iraq base their justification on the 2003 invasion to stop a non-existent weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) program.
But such critics fail to appreciate an admission by the head of Iraq’s Atomic Energy Commission. In a 2004 editorial, he wrote that Saddam Hussein believed he did have a WMD capability and did everything he could to project that image to threaten Iran. And, he said, Iraq did have the capability to jumpstart such a program quickly. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, it is supposed to be a duck…but it wasn’t.
Saddam defiantly played the role of having WMDs while doing nothing to convince the West otherwise. U.S. intelligence and President Bush cannot be faulted, therefore, for believing Iraq possessed them.
But, forgetting the “blame Bush” game and focusing now on what actions should or should not be taken in Iraq, the following considerations should be weighed:
- It is impossible to project how events in Iraq will play out in the months ahead due to numerous diverse interests involved including: ISIS Sunni militants, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Sunni tribes supporting ISIS (not as fundamentalists but as opponents of the Shiite/Maliki government), the Kurds and the Shiite-dominated Iranian government. If one factors in that an ISIS victory could well trigger another Sunni tribe awakening as occurred when they initially supported, and then opposed, al-Qaeda in Iraq, there is a great deal of uncertainty as to what the future holds.
- It became clear, after U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 and Maliki was “Saddamized,”-i.e., the process by which one dictator is replaced with another-he was becoming Iran’s man in Baghdad. The tea leaves were all there to be read: posters of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khomenei were plastered throughout Iraq; Iran’s Quds Force commander, Major General Qasem Soleimani, who had unsuccessfully spent eight years during Iran’s 1981-1988 war with Iraq to fight his way into Baghdad, now enjoys free movement throughout the country; etc. It was clear despite America’s hard-fought efforts to give Iraq the gift of a democracy, it was not to be as Maliki’s allegiance was to the Iranian mullahs and making Iraq their proxy state.
- It has been suggested by some critics that the U.S., having “brung” Maliki to the leadership dance years ago, should act to keep him in power-which would provide the U.S. and Iran with a mutually desirable goal to achieve.
- It is not in the best interests of the U.S. to see any party adhering to Islam’s most extremist views evolve as a power player in Iraq. Yet, such views are represented on the Sunni side by ISIS and on the Shia side by Iran. Both are adamantly anti-U.S.; both thrive on terrorism-the former as an organizational sponsor thereof and the latter as the leading state supporter of terrorism.
- In its July 22, 2004 “Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States,” the 9-11 Commission emphasized a key lesson was, “‘No sanctuaries’ for terrorist groups. Geographic sanctuaries (like pre-9/11 Afghanistan) enable terrorist groups to gather, indoctrinate, and train recruits, and they offer breathing space in which to develop complex plots (like the 9/11 attacks).” In a follow-up study on the tenth anniversary of that report, the Commission noted, “ISIS now controls vast swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, creating a massive terrorist sanctuary…That nightmare scenario may now be coming to pass” as gains by ISIS have caused the group to ramp up recruiting efforts to send combat-hardened jihadists to the U.S.
- An ISIS victory would leave Iraq as an incubator for future terrorist acts against the U.S.; however, its defeat would leave Iran in control of an Iraq to be used for the same purpose. Thus, the U.S. has to balance any action it takes in Iraq that enhances the success of one side over the other since, regardless of which prevails, U.S. influence in Iraq will not be enhanced and the terrorist threat will remain.
- It should be clear by now borders drawn by Western powers in 1916 have led to a Sunni dictator who caused Shiites in southern Iraq to suffer, to a Shiite would-be dictator who caused Sunnis in central Iraq to suffer and suffering by the Kurds in northern Iraq under both. A “unified” Iraq existed only in the minds of its Western creators as the country continues to exist today as a mixing bowl of conflicting interests that never should have been placed within the boundaries of a single nation. Ending sectarian violence in Iraq realistically requires creating three-states out of one, with a formula for oil-sharing revenues among them. However, recent gains by ISIS now make that solution impossible as it seeks to create, initially a regional and ultimately a global, caliphate.
- There are only two groups in Iraq which, if threatened, would justify U.S. air support.
The Kurds: During the first Persian Gulf war, the U.S. worked closely with the Kurds to defeat Saddam. They proved themselves to be well organized, good fighters and “most likely to succeed” as a democratic entity. With the backbone their Iraqi army counterparts lack, the Kurds are committed to defending their homeland at any cost. Controlling a semi-autonomous northern Iraq and its oilfields, they deserve U.S. support against any threat-even a resurrected Iraq under Iran’s puppet Maliki.
MEK: The Iranian opposition group MEK-ironically given a home in Iraq by Saddam to fight Iran’s mullahs-has long suffered under Maliki in the aftermath of the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces. Having voluntarily disarmed and surrendered to U.S. forces in 2003, MEK was conferred with “protected persons” status under the Geneva Conventions along with a U.S. guarantee-based on its status as an “occupying force“-for MEK’s safety. However, unarmed MEK residents have repeatedly been massacred by Iraqi forces on Iran’s orders as the mullahs seek to exterminate the group responsible for going public about Tehran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. Dozens of its members have been killed as the U.S. has ignored its duty under international law to protect them. With ISIS grabbing additional territorial control, the threat to MEK’s remaining 3000 members is greater than ever before.
The Iraqi people were given the opportunity for freedom-an opportunity denied generations before them. But they discovered freedom comes at a price. Unfortunately, it was a cost-after so many centuries of suffering under the “lugal,“i.e., a brutal leader both feared and revered-they proved neither willing nor capable of maintaining. America has paid the price for its altruistic efforts to plant the seed of democracy in a region of the world unable yet to appreciate it.
The above considerations heavily favor a do nothing policy in Iraq, yet President Obama is now suggesting he will act to help Maliki-and thus help Iran. The White House announced a request made by Maliki in May for airstrikes against ISIS is now “under active consideration.” While an unclear intelligence assessment on ISIS prevented immediate U.S. air action earlier, the additional months have supposedly provided Obama with a better assessment. Unfortunately, that additional time failed to leave him any wiser.
We can only hope Obama’s pending pledge to provide Iraq with air support is made with the same commitment he demonstrated when pledging retaliation against Syria if it crossed his redline by continuing to use chemical weapons.