What Is To Be Done About Iraq? No good choices for America. How can Obama work to defeat ISIL, while fostering national reconciliation in Iraq?

WASHINGTON – Republican critics are accusing Obama of negligence (or ineptitude) in his handling of the sudden Iraq crisis. Obama should act, and decisively, in order to destroy ISIL, “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant”, the radical, al Qaeda- inspired, entity that has now taken control of parts of Syria and of Northern Iraq.

Hesitant Obama

Yes, Obama looks hesitant and uncertain. But, in fairness, what should we be doing? And what would be the end game? Iraq is a mess, a deeply divided country in which the once persecuted Shia majority is now inflicting the same punishment on the Sunni minority. The present crsis is in part rooted in this rift. America lacks the tools, the money, the political will and the staying power to start all over with a brand new occupation of Iraq. Which is to say that it is not clear what an American military intervention against ISIL would achieve.

George H. W. Bush

By coincidence, the US aircraft carrier now ordered to sail closer to Iraq is the George H. W. Bush. And this name, “George H. W. Bush”, is a reminder of a different Iraq contingency (go back to 1990) in which there were indeed easy choices. Yes, the carrier is named after President George Bush Senior, “The Good Bush”. This is the President Bush who proclaimed to the world that Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait “would not stand”.

Back in 1990-1991, President Bush Senior ably assembled a broad international coalition, deployed a huge US army in Saudi Arabia, attacked Iraqi forces that were occupying Kuwait and successfully pushed them back, this way winning the war via an operation code-named “Desert Storm”.

Ah, those were the days…Those were the days in which there was clarity of purpose, strong leadership, and first class US diplomacy led by then Secretary of State James Baker.

Bush Senior let Saddam stay in power

Yet, strangely enough, the fact that when America was winning and the Iraqis were running scared President Bush Senior ordered a halt to military operations set in motion a perverse dynamic that is still running its course.

As we may recall, President Bush Senior argued that the international coalition had a UN mandate to liberate Kuwait, and nothing more. Doing away with Saddam Hussein’s regime was not part of the deal, and so America would not destroy his regime, although it had the opportunity to do so.

Of course, privately the administration told everybody that they expected the weakened and discredited Saddam Hussein regime to be toppled from within in matter of weeks after his utter defeat in Kuwait. Therefore, why do the dirty work of “regime change”, when the Iraqi opposition was ready to do it?

Saddam was a problem

Well, we know it did not work out that way. Saddam’s ruthlessness prevailed against poorly organized Shiite opponents. Despite his catastrophic defeat in Kuwait, Saddam remained in charge, thereafter a permanent thorn in America’s side.

Indeed, reconciliation with this dictator was impossible. The stalemate was followed by years of UN sanctions, by the “inspections” aimed at verifying the cessation of illegal armaments programs, by the US imposed and enforced “no fly zones”, and a lot more. But Saddam, defiant as always, was still there.

Would Saddam hand over WMDs to terrorists?

Then came 9/11 and the fear (unjustified as it turned out) that Saddam –America’s sworn enemy– might turn some of his illegal WMD stockpiles, (he did not have them we later discovered), to al Qaeda or other terror groups.

Hence the fateful decision made by President George Bush Junior to invade Iraq in order to bring about the end of this rogue regime and of the threat to American national security Washington believed (wrongly) it represented.

And we know what that meant. After a swift and effective military campaign that in no time toppled Saddam, an ill-planned occupation regime led to internal strife, sectarian violence, Iranian meddling, and more.

We left Iraq in December 2011

In the end, we left Iraq in December 2011 in a state of precarious peace that was predicated, however, on real sectarian reconciliation. But that did not last. The obtuse Prime Minister al-Maliki essentially presided over a regime of Shiite revenge, this way alienating the Sunni minority that used to be in charge when Saddam was the leader.

The Syria crisis and its consequences

Then came the mess in Syria. And this outside event proved to be the catalyst for the new crisis in Iraq. Many radical Sunni fighters went into Syria to fight “the good fight”. In so doing they gathered support among other Sunnis in Iraq. Forward to today, and you see the end result.

A sectarian Shiite Prime Minister in Baghdad alienated the Sunnis in Iraq. Some of them joined the extreme radicals who are dreaming of an “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant”, (ISIL). ISIL, already engaged militarily in Syria, gained a foothold in Northern Iraq.

Out of nowhere, here comes ISIL

And now their determination proved to be much stronger than a poorly motivated Iraqi army, (I regret to say trained at a huge cost by the US). The Iraqi soldiers were not defeated in combat. They just fled, proving once again that morale and conviction may be more important than numbers and equipment.

And here we are. ISIL has now occupied a huge piece of Northern Iraq, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. As commentators pointed out, if you combine this territory with the parts of Eastern Syria also controlled by ISIL, you have a country the size of the US state of Indiana.

What should America do?

Now, beyond the surprise of this incredibly fast development, does any of this affect US interests? Remember, we left Iraq in 2011 with the confidence that our work was done, because Iraq was a country at peace, pursuing economic development via the exploitation of its enormous oil wealth. Well, none of this applies anymore.

President Obama now has to decide what to do –if anything. We can clearly see that he would rather do nothing. He would like to believe in the fantasy that, after he negotiated the exit of US troops from Iraq, this would be indeed the end of the unfortunate adventure concocted by his predecessor, President George Bush Junior.

What is the goal of a possible US intervention?

As always, when you have to decide whether or not to jump into a  house on fire there are no easy choices. Is there indeed any point in any American intervention? Iraq is a mess. The Shiites have purposely antagonized the Sunnis. ISIL took advantage of this rift and found a way to get itself established in Sunni areas of Iraq. We know that. Realistically, an American military intervention could not possibly work towards any Sunni-Shia reconciliation. If anything, any US aid to the Shia government may make things worse.

At a different level, we do not know what the long-term intentions and capabilities of the ISIL leadership really are. Occupying large pieces of Syria and Iraq is one thing. Holding on to them, quite another. And ruling by terror may work for a while. After that, you have to create and sustain a semi-credible public administration, delivery of services, a functioning economy. It is highly unlikely that ISIL is up to any of this.

Peace in Iraq

So, what is America’s best option? Hard to say. Of course, it would be good to act in close consultation with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. After all, this is their region. Do they want to live next to an Iraq that is beginning to resemble Syria, or may be Somalia?

Broadly speaking, it should be in the national interest of the United States to have an Iraq that is stable and at peace, with all its major ethnic and religious groups working together. After all, Iraq has immense oil wealth. Assuming domestic peace and a modicum of common sense, the country could thrive. But is there anything that we could realistically do that would get us closer to this goal?

Destroy Islamic radicals

Again, broadly speaking, it is in the interest of the United States to nip in the bud any al Qaeda or al Qaeda-like renaissance. Radical Islamists mean trouble, for the world and for America, as we learnt on 9/11. ISIL should be destroyed.

Given all this, what can Obama do? Hard to say. However, of all the options, the stupidest is to “outsource” the management of any anti-ISIL military effort to Iran. And yet it seems that we are headed in this direction.

Iran may be the winner, in the end

A radical new, al Qaeda-inspired, state is bad news for America. However, an extension of Iranian influence into Iraq is even worse news. ISIL does not have a strong base and it may fail. The mullahs in Iran run a large state. They have been in charge there since 1979. And I do not see any signs of their demise.

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