It’s not easy to know just what the United States should be doing about Iraq, but President Obama’s approach thus far seems about right. As the Los Angeles Times reported today, the President has followed a very deliberate and, to my mind, intelligently cautious course:
The president solicited scores of options, planners returned with possibilities, and, according to people involved, Obama would reply with the same question: And then what?….Obama’s approach — the persistent “and then what?” question — reflects his deep skepticism about the ability of military intervention to fix entrenched problems, a suspicion that some note has grown, or at least solidified, during his tenure.
I think it’s pretty clear that it is not in the US interest to see the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gain a foothold on power in Iraq. These people are terrible fanatics, and it seems very likely that an ISIS rump state in Iraq would serve as a welcoming home base to Jihadists of all stripes plotting actions against the United States and the West as well as against neighboring Arab states. But simply to support the current government in its fight against ISIS would be a big mistake.
The fundamental problem in Iraq is political, and it requires first of all a political solution. The NY Times reports that ISIS is enjoying the cooperative support of Iraqi Sunnis who dislike its extremism, but are willing to join it in a fight against a government that has systematically repressed the previously long-dominant Sunni minority. The moderate Sunnis are not our enemies, and could possibly be enlisted in the support of an Iraqi government that sought to create a genuinely inclusive democracy. The US needs to encourage the formation of such a government. And, as the Wall Street Journal (but curiously, not the Times) reports in its lead article today, the US is doing just that, to the point of hinting that such a government could do well without the inclusion of the current Prime Minister Maliki.
The predictable braying from the right about Obama’s weakness as a cause of the current crisis—from the likes of Dick and Liz Cheney, John McCain and Lindsey Graham—deserves to be regarded with the dismissiveness we would normally accord the views of people who have been consistently, stubbornly wrong. McCain’s dubious suggestion that the US could have averted the current crisis by leaving a residual force of 5-6000 troops in Iraq reflects the right-wing interventionists’ inability to comprehend the fundamentally political nature of the problem. No residual US force would have induced Maliki to change his sectarian ways, and it could hardly have offered effective resistance to the ISIS-Sunni onslaught. The interventionists seem to be calling for some kind of decisive action now from President Obama, though it’s not entirely clear just what that should involve. A question that they are not asking is, “and then what?”