The use of U.S. military force against ISIS is a significant escalation whose long-term significance is elusive. The announced justification for the military strikes combined a humanitarian rationale (the exigent need of the Yazidis stranded on their bleak mountain) with the threat that ISIS posed to American citizens in the Kurdish capital of Erbil. These objectives cannot quite be taken at face value. Humanitarian interventions have a strong tendency to morph into something much larger; there is, moreover, a deep obscurity in what the Obama administration intends to do. President Obama has identified a vital interest, but has also put some limits on the enterprise. He emphasized that “there is no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq. The only lasting solution is for Iraqis to come together and form an inclusive government—one that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis, and one that can unify the country’s fight against ISIL.”
The American airstrikes occur against the background of a prolonged stalemate over the formation of a new Iraqi government. Nouri al-Maliki, who has recently announced that he will step aside, whose parliamentary list received the most seats in the elections, has incurred the bitter enmity of the Kurds and the Sunnis; even a majority of the Shia legislators has abandoned him. Iran opposes him; the United States opposes him; Sistani opposes him. Faced with these obstacles, it seems incredible that Maliki should have stationed personally-loyal military forces at critical points around the capital in a display of force, as his answer to the call of the Iraqi president—a Kurd—to nominate Haider al-Abadi for prime minister in preference to Maliki. (Maliki is also objecting to the very presidential discretion that enabled him to remain prime minister in 2010, when Allawi earned, but was denied, the right to form a government.) It is a very ill omen that the Shia should display such division even when their community lies under mortal peril.
It is by no means a given that al-Abadi will be able to form a government. The obstacles that confronted Maliki will also confront him. The Kurds remain set on a referendum for independence, presumably indicating that their participation in the government would be of limited duration; there is a deep sense of mutual betrayal between Baghdad and Erbil. The Sunnis also make demands—the control of the defense ministry and the release of prisoners, especially—that seem unlikely to be accepted at a time of supreme emergency for Iraqi Shia. It is not clear how much political and military heft the Sunni parliamentarians hold in their own territories—probably not much—so their signatures would not move mountains of men. Even if the obstacles are overcome and a governing majority is patched together, it is absurd to think that government reform would also mean military reform (the multiethnic, depoliticized force that Kenneth Pollack continues to push, against all evidence of its feasibility). What the United States was unable to achieve after many years of trying cannot be put together on the fly, if at all. The Iraqi army has become the army for Shiastan and is operating in conjunction with Shia militias. How can it be otherwise?
All this suggests that Obama has set an unattainable condition for the (unspecified) help the United States would give if the Iraqis suddenly got an “inclusive” government. It is unclear whether Obama set that condition because he knew that it could not be attained, or because he wants to make a big effort, even if the condition is not fully met. In any case, American rhetoric is very far detached from the realities of Iraq, now effectively partitioned into three quasistates whose chief purpose is the wars they prosecute with one another.
There is no question that ISIS represents a malignant force. The Islamic State is a new order of barbarity in the world—it puts in the shade nearly all the “terrorists” in the Middle East as customarily denominated by Washington and Tel Aviv. Terrorism is a term widely abused—it often seems to refer simply to armed men whose causes we don’t approve of—but ISIS is certifiably the real deal, the guys who made bin Laden cringe. Just when “terrorism” had become virtually useless as a political category, made unintelligible by constant overuse, ISIS stepped into the breach to remind us that there is such a thing as the hostis humani generis. As such, the rise of ISIS reveals the need for a thorough upheaval in U.S. foreign policy. Insofar as we have any role to play in helping to bring some semblance of order to a desperate region, it must consist primarily in the containment of this new malignant force. Until the progress of the Islamic State is arrested and reversed, everything else in regional policy should be subordinate to this imperative.
To call for such a reevaluation in policy does not mean that the United States should make it its business to destroy ISIS; it is the business of the states of the region to undertake this objective, with our cooperation and support. The obvious need is for a grand coalition of regional and global powers looking towards the containment, at a minimum, of the Islamic State.
This necessary task, unfortunately, is one of exceeding difficulty and danger. The overriding catastrophe is that the political voice of Sunnis in Iraq and Syria has been commandeered by a group so repulsive to any standard of human decency. The political objective must be to find a different voice to represent them, one more in keeping with the nongenocidal outlook of the Sunni majority. There is a serious danger that military operations against them may increase rather than decrease their hold on the population—bombardiers take note—whereas the overriding political purpose of coalition strategy must be to separate them from the people they now rule.
The implications of making ISIS enemy numero uno in the region are far-reaching. It means accepting a greater Iranian role in the defense of Iraq, and especially the defense of Baghdad. It means stopping “humanitarian” assistance across the Turkish border that would in any way run to the benefit of ISIS. (That the efforts of many well-intentioned Christian charities have had this effect is a sort of Exhibit A for humanitarianism run amok). Perhaps above all, it means giving up on the now obviously failed and disastrous policy of encouraging armed revolt in Syria. That means accepting Assad, for the foreseeable future, as a permanent part of Middle Eastern political geography and enlisting him in the struggle against ISIS.
These changes would be very distasteful to the U.S. security establishment. They would also be extremely bitter medicine for the Sunni Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, though there are some signs they have awakened to the danger ISIS poses. Turkey has had its consular officials seized by ISIS; the only things Turkey has gotten out of supporting jihadists in Syria are a new state that treats the Turks with contempt and kidnappings. Saudi Arabia is also gravely threatened by ISIS victories. It has been reported that Saudi Arabia’s dismissal of Prince Bandar as chief arms supplier to the Syrian rebels arose from King Abdullah’s recognition that the Saudi support of jihadists had yielded unanticipated consequences: a group that panted even more than bin Laden for the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy. A real army right next door to Saudi Arabia is a much more serious threat than a rag-tag group making camp a thousand miles away in Afghanistan. The role of the Sunni Arab states—Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf emirates—is crucial in displacing ISIS. If it is to be done, ‘tis better if done by them. Their complicity in ISIS’ rise admittedly does not augur well for such a policy, but the idea certainly deserves exploration. It would be clarifying to learn whether Saudi Arabia considers ISIS or Iran the bigger threat.
A group that declares war on the human race, as the Islamic State has effectively done, is probably not long for this world. Practically speaking, however, there is no one who seems to have the power to dislodge them from the position they have consolidated across broad stretches of Syria and Iraq. They have been growing rather than receding in power, with their own version of blitzkrieg paving the way. Their capture of the Mosul Dam, a fragile structure capable—if breached—of unleashing horrible devastation, is just the latest in a summer of grim victories.
Obama is right to say that there is no American military solution to the Iraqi crisis, but the United States cannot simply wash its hands of a disaster in which this country has played a leading role. It was the breakages of the state in Iraq and Syria that created the anarchical conditions in which ISIS has thrived, breakages the United States promoted as part of a campaign to extend human rights and democracy.
Even if this sorry record is put to one side, there are auxiliary responsibilities created by what we promised Iraq when we left. The entire training program for the Iraqi Army seems to have been predicated on the assumption that the United States would stick around to be Iraq’s air force. Then, after it left, the United States promised but did not deliver on the provision of F-16s. ISIS now commands vast stores of U.S. military equipment that it gained by capturing Mosul and its large Iraqi base. Surely it is reasonable to seek to rectify an imbalance of forces to which the United States has inadvertently contributed.
There are indeed strict limits to what American leaders can do. Whatever they do, they should appreciate that they have lost the trust of most Iraqis. At an early stage of the negotiations to replace Maliki, American officials conceded that the American imprimatur might be the kiss of death for any substitute candidate. Probably this did not hinder American diplomats from scheming behind the scenes, but it is a real political force that seriously weakens the capacity of the United States to shape events. To say that there are limits to what the United States can realistically achieve, however, does not mean that it should attempt nothing. In particular, it seems a reasonable aim to work with the Shia to prevent ISIS from strangling Baghdad and to ensure that the Kurds have effective means of self-defense.
I am by strong inclination a noninterventionist, and so put forward ideas for U.S. reengagement in Iraq with real trepidation. American airstrikes and the provision of weapons are commencing without any change in the larger U.S. policy that demonizes Syria and Iran. That is a huge demerit. Nor do we have any assurance that military operations with ostensibly limited aims will not suddenly transform into much larger enterprises, a known propensity of the U.S. security establishment. These are good reasons for staying out. Still, it would be a moral and political calamity were Baghdad, a city of some seven million people, to be taken, sacked or destroyed by the Islamic State. To prevent that (or similar catastrophes in the north), the United States should help the locals help themselves, but should not rule out U.S. air strikes if necessary to defend a critical position. Above all, the United States needs to reconsider its hostility to Assad’s Syria and Rouhani’s Iran, without whose cooperation the containment of the Islamic State will be far more difficult.
The United States has enjoyed for over a decade an artificial position in Iraq and the Levant. Its larger system of alliances identified it with the Sunnis—with Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Israel’s enmity toward the greatest of the Shia states, Iran, strongly reinforced this pro-Sunni tilt in U.S. policy. As part of its self-regard, however, the United States had to follow through, after its 2003 invasion of Iraq, on the creation of a democracy, which meant a majority Shia state with close ties to Iran. That, in turn, alarmed the Sunni Gulf states and encouraged them to think that the overthrow of Assad was imperative, a rebellion that created the space within which ISIS metastasized. Now that the political movement known as ISIS has arrived, the United States also needs to “reach across the aisle,” just as it is urging those Iraqi parliamentarians to do.
David C. Hendrickson is professor of political science at Colorado College. He is the author of Union, Nation, or Empire: The American Debate over International Relations, 1789-1941 (University Press of Kansas, 2009).
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