The Iraq Crisis Proves That America Needs Better Intelligence and A Truly Bipartisan Foreign Policy The US needs a definition of the national interest that both parties can endorse. Right now foreign policy is just another tool to discredit your opponent

WASHINGTON – Beyond the severity of the crisis, there are at least two things emerging out of the Iraq debacle that worry me.

Caught by surprise

The first one is that America’s leadership did not see any of this coming. Mind you, this is Iraq, a country where we had a major military campaign that lasted for several years. A country where we invested blood and treasure for almost a decade.  A country where, despite the unfortunately cool relations with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, America still has an enormous US Embassy, and countless other assets on the ground.

And yet we are left with the distinct impression that our key policy makers were not aware of ISIS’ –a Sunni radical Islamist organization once affiliated with al Qaeda– real strength and of the inability/unwillingness of Iraqi soldiers to fight them.

A vast intelligence apparatus did not see any of this coming?

We know that America has a massive and super-expensive intelligence system. Yes, we do have the National Security Agency, (this is the NSA made famous by Edward Snowden’s revelations), that allegedly listens to every phone conversation, while it reads every mail of any potential bad guy, (and may be yours too).

We have spy satellites whose ultra potent, high-resolution cameras can read the newspaper you are holding while sitting at a cafe in Paris or Damascus. And yet, apparently we could not see –let alone prevent– the successful march of ISIS into Northern Iraq.

This is astonishing. What do all the Arab speaking experts and analysts at the NSA, CIA, DIA and countless other US intelligence agencies do all day?

Foreign policy is all about scoring points in domestic politics

The second worrisome observation is about how US foreign policy is now totally politicized. Which is to say that the foreign policy positions of the current administration are used by the other side to discredit the President’s party politically, every time the opportunity presents itself.

This may be clever politics. But it has disastrous effects on our democracy. America should have a bipartisan foreign policy sustained by basic assumptions and principles that both parties openly support, without fears of any political backlash.

The national interest

I believe it was former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger who said many years ago that the national interest of the United States of America does not change every four years, with a new electoral cycle, the inauguration of a new President and a new national security team put in place.

Indeed, during the Cold War, politics did stop “at the water’s edge”. There was a basic consensus shared by both Republicans and Democrats that the US was engaged in an all out effort to contain the Soviet Union. That included supporting multilateral security arrangements, such as NATO, and a lot more.

Of course, this consensus was not perfect. It fell apart with the open opposition to the War in Vietnam. There were also misgivings about “Detente”, as pursued by the Nixon-Kissinger duo. But overall there was basic understanding about who the bad guys were (the Soviets) and that we –as a nation– should be on the look out for any mischief they might have been concocting.

Foreign policy is about scoring points at home

Now we are in a different era. George W. Bush was called “delusional” and a lot worse by commentators on account of the War in Iraq. Senator Harry Reid, Democrat and Majority Leader, openly declared at some point that “the war in Iraq is lost”, a totally irresponsible statement, as tens of thousands of American soldierswhere still fighting there.

Partisan attacks

And now that Obama is in charge, the sniping continues. Here we are, confronted with a major international crisis enveloping Iraq, a country where we invested so much, a country with some of the largest oil reserves in the world, a country bordering Iran and Syria, and what we see is mostly name calling, or predigested policy positions based only on ideological bias.

John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, rather unkindly said that as the Middle East is on fire, President Obama was taking a nap. Senator John McCain, (Obama’s Republican opponent in 2008), speaking on the floor of the US Senate, called for the wholesale firing of the entire Obama National Security Team, (including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the National Security Advisor, among others), as all these people have proven to be incompetent.

Does America have anything at stake in Iraq?

Last but not least, an otherwise intelligent political commentator said that she was against the war in Iraq from the beginning. And now that the US is no longer there with a military presence, it is no surprise to her that the country is falling apart. And there is nothing we can do about this –she added– because all polls indicate that most Americans are against sending more troops there. Really? Just like that? Foreign policy directed by opinion polls?

And what about a definition of the US national interest in Iraq? Are we agreed, as a nation, that whatever happens to Iraq, including the establishment of an Islamist, radical Sunni quasi-state on part of its territory is of no consequence to us? Are we really that stupid?

Obama now prisoner of his own politics

And President Obama is also caught in this web. “Getting out of Iraq” was sold to America as a political triumph back in 2011. Something like: “Irresponsible George W. Bush started wars. I end them. Our boys are coming home”. As the end of the US engagment in Iraq was officially a “success”, not much was said about the progressive deterioration of Iraq’s security, with terror attacks becoming more and more numerous and deadly in recent months.

Indeed, any notion of re-engaging in Iraq was out of the question, as it might have been viewed as a major admission of failed policies by this “peace President”. And, even now, with Iraq literally falling apart, the President hesitates. And the reasons have to do mostly with domestic politics.

Indeed, any US re-engagement would allow more Obama critics to come forward and argue that the decision to stop negotiating with the al-Maliki government back in 2011 was hasty and wrong. Because of that unwise choice, we left Iraq in a hurry and now….well, now look what happened.

Wanted: a new bipartisan consensus

There has to be a good middle ground between unwise interventionism and equally bad wholesale retreat. As I said, no sane person can argue that America has no vital interests in the Middle East, and in Iraq in particular. The problem is that nobody seems capable of articulating what they are and how we, as a nation, can go about protecting them.

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