Nearly a month on, it is time to take a step back from the breathlessly hysterical media reports and hand-wringing over the situation in Iraq and offer some alternative opinions and analysis. Here is an opinion no one would expect to hear on a site featuring conservative commentary: the Obama administration is right.
As still-more U.S. troops return to the country, the deteriorated security situation in Iraq has reignited debate about the U.S. mission in Iraq, whether the war is truly over, whether it was worth it (most agree it wasn’t), whether we should have gone in the first place, etc. More reliable than the sun rising in the east, the political finger-pointing and blame game has been in full swing for the past number of weeks as to who is responsible for this crisis.
Surely Obama is responsible for not securing a “status of forces” agreement to allow a residual force of U.S. troops to remain in the country to continue to provide counter-terror training and intelligence support to the reconstituted Iraqi Army.
No, the entire affair remains Bush’s fault for opening a proverbial Pandora’s Box. Had the United States never invaded and then subsequently mismanaged the country’s internal affairs post-invasion, this situation would never have arisen.
No, really, the blame should reside with Maliki and the Iraqi parliament which would not stand by its earlier agreement with the Bush administration, approve legal immunity for any forces which remained in the country, and exacerbated sectarian divisions by playing favorites politically.
Never mind these three arguments, other say; we should blame the British and the French for their post-war partitions of the region in the early 20th century. Indeed, the group responsible for the current crisis has stated its desire to completely destroy the century-old Sykes-Picot regional order. All of these arguments have their merits. However, at this point, accuracy in blame placement does no good in effectively addressing the security problem posed by a group like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria/al-Sham/the Levant (ISIS/ISIL).
The Maliki government quietly requested air strikes by the U.S. military to help combat the group’s steady advance into the country. The Obama administration rightly told it to take a hike and work it out themselves. This is where the Obama administration is exactly right: the Iraqi government should ultimately be responsible for the internal security of the country. If the government and army/security forces were not ready to take control of the state’s security after nine years of U.S. hand-holding, would they ever be?
This is not to say there aren’t some encouraging signs coming from the country. A number of volunteers are signing up to fight the terror group and help protect their homeland. This is exactly the kind of organic organization and resistance to extremism the whole region needs. Alas, it remains highly unlikely that it will result in any prolonged sense of unity or bridge over sectarian division.
Of course, no one should be surprised Iraq went to hell as soon as U.S. troops withdrew from the country. Afghanistan will follow suit soon enough. In both areas, the citizens of the country face a protracted and uphill battle against sectarian/tribal division and the forces of Islamic extremism. But this should no longer be the United States’ fight. Thirteen years after 9/11, it should be obvious that regional stability in the Middle East and elsewhere will never ultimately be achieved by U.S. boots on the ground and Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles. It must be up to the so-called “moderate majority” of citizens in these countries to stand up to extremist bullies, declare an end to the violence, and reclaim their religion. A study released earlier this week “underscores the growing fear and anger felt by many in Muslim-majority countries when facing a range of militant threats.” Good. Perhaps that fear and anger will prompt positive action.
4,486 U.S. troops died to create a failed state in Iraq. Not to mention the countless other casualties and troops who came home missing a piece of themselves. It is much too steep a price to pay for a lesson which America should have learned a long time ago: the Middle East is an Islamic extremism-driven mess, and it will continue to be for the foreseeable future. It will continue to be gripped by a regional conflict that is essentially the same as if Methodists and Baptists in the American South decided they hated each other and started killing each other en masse and the American government were powerless to stop it. This dynamic must be taken into consideration as we move forward in the fight against terrorism.
If we hadn’t already turned the page to begin Part II of the War on Terror, the current crisis in Iraq would make a nice opening sequence. Having routed Al Qaeda and the Taliban to a quick defeat in Afghanistan at the beginning of Part One, the United States gradually lost focus and understanding of the enemy. The tactical victory won was followed by what now looks like a nine-year misadventure in a then-stable Middle Eastern state (Iraq) which ultimately posed no immediate security threat to the United States or regional allies and served as an excellent counterweight to its historical enemy (Iran). Part II opens with the historical enemy taking advantage of the ensuing chaos and power vacuum in an attempt to create a puppet client state next door which would geographically connect it to its other already-established and more strategically-located client state (Syria). All the while the remnants of the previously-suppressed militant groups which lingered in the country have availed themselves of regional insecurity and civil war and begun to more aggressively assert the Islamo-fascist order which informs their world view. Part II of the War on Terror features a well-armed terror organization so extreme that it has been officially disowned by Al Qaeda. A group demanding daughters be handed over so they can be raped “cleansed.” Lovely.
This is an enemy which has absolutely no respect for liberal-democratic values. It understands nothing but violence, and continues to multiply across the globe. The only viable solution in this case is to meet violence with targeted violence and strong intelligence operations. To be sure, targeted killing of terrorists via drone missiles has been extremely effective in eliminating threats. However, a precisely-placed sniper bullet may make more of a statement and certainly carries less potential for collateral damage.
A more targeted approach would also allow for greater discretion in terms of intelligence. The success of ISIS and the relative surprise with which it has been met by the U.S. intelligence community highlights one of the most fundamental flaws in the recent approach to counter-terrorism: the scarcity of human intelligence (HUMINT). Satellites and communications interceptions are valuable tools in the fight against terrorism. However, when dealing with an enemy that relies so heavily on human networks, there is no replacement for human eyes and ears within that network.
What, then, is the best course of action for U.S. policy in the region for the future? Truthfully, I’m not convinced that the best solution isn’t to simply step back and watch it burn–gradually disengage both politically and economically (to some extent, this is what the administration is doing with its “pivot to Asia“).
Each security crisis in the region raises serious concerns about energy supply and the prices of oil. Amazingly, despite decade after decade of turmoil and instability, the United States still has not learned its lesson and completely divested itself of its dependence on this region for its oil. America boasts likely the world’s largest fossil fuel reserves, yet still views this region as vitally important in terms of its energy supply. It is time for that to change. Greater energy independence would allow the United States to approach regional crises from a cooler, rationalist perspective and would make it further disinclined to counterproductive interventionism.
At the same time, the U.S. could devote greater resources to managing intelligence and special operations in the region to directly address threats to national security without the meddlesome politics. There are a number of real security issues which need the United States’ attention: Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, and ISIS must not be allowed to create a de-facto “launching pad” for attacks against the West.
A democratic, stable government in the states in this region would probably help these ends. But as long as the U.S. continues to throw buckets of water on a wildfire, it ensures that that is never going to happen. Step back, build trenches to contain the fire, and then wait for it to burn out.