The sudden collapse of Northern Iraq has come as a shock to Americans – and that seems to go for just about everyone, from the common person right up to the President. The question of what, if anything, we should do about it has produced mostly handwringing among the same group, especially including the President. Perhaps the only clarity has come from General Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When asked by a Senator what our interests were, he said, “It is in our national security interests to counter ISIL wherever we find them.” But the general stopped short of recommending that we actually do anything. If it’s in our interests to counter ISIL, and prevent the disintegration of a highly strategic country in the heart of the Middle East, then why don’t we counter them? Air power alone, which the Iraqis have requested, would be powerful and probably decisive, as it was in Libya. So what’s stopping us?
The common refrain is that Iraq’s president, Nouri al-Maliki, has to clean up his act before we lend him a helping hand. The crisis is his fault, this argument goes, because he excluded Sunnis and Kurds from his government and, no doubt, from his patronage. Iraq is collapsing because Sunnis and Kurds refuse to defend a regime that oppresses them. If Maliki will agree to form a coalition government, or better yet resign, then we’ll help out. Really? Maliki has to quit or form a partnership with people who hate him. Might be difficult. Meanwhile, the country burns to the ground while we sit on the sidelines, or offer minimal support.
Perhaps there are other reasons for widespread confusion and inaction among our leaders. Almost all are prisoners of previous decisions and positions. Obama pulled us out of Iraq and turned his back on our former ally. A violent return to Iraq will betray everything Obama has stood for since his days as a junior state senator in Illinois, when he began to make a national name for himself by opposing the war in Iraq. Furthermore, Obama and his foreign policy team took down Gaddafi and demanded that Assad must go in Syria, actions that stoked the fires we are now witnessing. Obama’s Republican opposition is also largely compromised. Most of them have been scolding Obama for not attacking Assad in Syria and for being too easy on Iran. American action against ISIL will potentially aid the Assad regime in Syria and the Iranians. Imagine the cognitive dissonance!
Perhaps it’s time for a little hard-headed analysis. First, Maliki may have made some big mistakes, but so have we. He is the elected leader of Iraq, not a tyrant and wants our help. We can help him without conditions – those can come later when the crisis has passed and he needs our help to stay in power. Second, we don’t need to get into bed with Iran in order to help Iraq. Iran is still a major adversary and should be kept at arm’s length. If they want to chip in to help the Shia in Iraq, we can live with that. Third, we can back off our demand that Assad leave Syria. Assad has been brutal in prosecuting the Syrian civil war, but so have his enemies. Quietly, we may even need to coordinate with Assad and his Russian allies to help destroy ISIL, which is based in Northern Syria. Our interests are aligned. Imagine how the dynamic in the Middle East would change if we had a clear-eyed view of our interests and began vigorously to defend our friends and counter our enemies.
In its haste to distance itself from the policies of the Bush Administration, the Obama Administration has abandoned Iraq, gone soft on Iran, taken ill-conceived positions against Libya and Syria, allowed Al Queda to mushroom and even shown the back of its hand to Israel. The result is the chaos we now observe. General Dempsey had it right, it is in our national security interests to counter ISIL wherever we find them. John McCain had one thing right (even if he got a lot of other things wrong) when he said Obama should fire his entire national security team and start over. It’s time to keep our eye on the ball.