Generals, they say, are always preparing to fight the last war. The same is undoubtedly true for heads of state, at least judging by President Obama's reaction to the grim news out of Iraq this past week.
The country seems to be coming apart as militants from the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, sometimes known as ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq ad al-Shams) mount a brutal assault on major cities, and press on towards Baghdad.
Mosul, the second largest city, fell Tuesday, and Tikrit has changed hands more than once over the past few days. The Iraqi Army melted away like butter in the sun, despite years of training by the US military. With trillions spent, thousands of lives lost, eight years of hell, things in Iraq are worse than ever.
The word from Washington is: Let’s see what happens.
“We'll be monitoring the situation in Iraq very carefully over the next several days,” the president told reporters Friday.
Meanwhile critics of the administration are raising the alarm.
“We are facing an existential threat to the security of the United States of America,” warned perennial Obama-basher John McCain, Republican senator from Arizona.
Obama may be forgiven for taking some time to think; the memory of the Iraq War is still fresh in the national consciousness, and the thought of getting involved there again gives most Americans the heebie-jeebies.
In 2003 President George W. Bush also was operating under the cloud of the previous war in Iraq, waged when his father, George H. W. Bush, was in office. At that time Washington was criticized for not going far enough, for not removing Saddam Hussein from office.
But, as experts point out, the junior Bush’s disastrous decision to bring shock and awe to Baghdad, in search of mythical Al Qaeda operatives and equally illusory weapons of mass destruction, has led directly to where we are today. By crushing the Iraqi state and failing to erect replacement structures, the United States and its Coalition of the Willing all but ensured that the conflict would last for years to come.
The situation in Iraq is horrifically complicated, and the flood of heated rhetoric over the past few days has done little to clarify things. But most of the discussion revolves around two main questions: Who is to blame? And, what is to be done?
Who is to blame?
When it comes to Iraq, there is more than enough fault to go around. It all comes down to how far back you want to go.
But in general, here are the main culprits:
1. Barack Obama
(Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
Republicans are quick to point out that Washington’s failure to secure a status of forces agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2010, which led to the complete withdrawal of US troops in 2011, is the main reason Iraq is falling apart today.
Obama argues that he had no choice; Maliki refused to extend immunity to US troops, and no president would leave personnel on the ground under those conditions.
There was little appetite to stay on in Iraq.
As journalist Dexter Filkins writes in The New Yorker, “Today, many Iraqis, including some close to Maliki, say that a small force of American soldiers — working in non-combat roles — would have provided a crucial stabilizing factor that is now missing from Iraq … President Obama wanted the Americans to come home, and Maliki didn’t particularly want them to stay.”
2. Nouri al-Maliki
(Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)
Obama and his team want to lay blame at the feet of the Iraqi prime minister.
Maliki makes a good bad guy; in the eight years since he became prime minister, he has done much to destabilize his country by effectively excluding the Sunni minority from power. Bolstered by Iran, where he lived in exile for seven years during Saddam’s reign, he has cemented the authority of the Shiites and has all but made Iraq a client state of Tehran.
Indeed, numerous media reports state that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have sent hundreds of troops to Iraq to support Maliki’s government; Tehran denies this, but the rumors persist.
This puts the US in the uncomfortable position of possibly getting into bed with Iran to bail out Maliki.
Maliki has also annoyed his Kurdish minority, failing to address their separatist ambitions and economic grievances. It is the Kurds who have been the most successful against ISIL, and they have now all but taken control of oil-rich Kirkuk.
3. George W. Bush
(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
The decline of the Iraqi state was a direct result of some really bad decisions made by Bush and his team — namely, dissolving the Iraqi Army and engaging in a process of de-Baathification of the government.
Saddam’s Baath Party was responsible for many excesses, but cutting loose just about anyone with any experience made the country all but ungovernable. It also created a rich recruitment pool for extremists: the media is reporting that many former Baath officers are joining up with ISIL in the current conflict.
It was the invasion, in fact, that spawned ISIL in the first place. Originally known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group formed in reaction to the presence of foreign troops on Iraqi soil. It gained impetus during the eight years of war with the West, although the US troop surge in 2007 clipped its wings somewhat.
ISIL further honed its skills in Syria, where it has been fighting the forces of Bashar al-Assad and of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed organization that is helping out its fellow Shiite government in Damascus.
There are many more culprits — George H. W. Bush, who pulled back before getting rid of Saddam in 1991; Saddam Hussein himself, whose brutal repressions incited such hatred in his countrymen, especially the Shia majority, who chafed under his Sunni rule.
One could go all the way back to 1916, when the British and French concluded a secret protocol to carve up the Ottoman Empire to suit their own interests, with scant regard for ethnic or sectarian realities on the ground. The Sykes-Picot agreement created the lopsided entity that is now Iraq, and is responsible for much of the mess nearly 100 years later.
What is to be done?
The blame game has produced no winners; now it’s time to move on to the solutions. To no one’s surprise, there are absolutely no good choices for the White House here.
Obama says that “all options are on the table” except for actual troop deployment, and even the president’s harshest critics are loath to recommend sending American soldiers back to Iraq. But just what do “all options” include?
1. Military action
Former US ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffreys, is calling for immediate airstrikes, although he admits it is not a perfect solution.
“The only game-changing US move would be an air campaign against ISIS of the magnitude of that used against Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces in Libya in 2011,” he wrote this week in Foreign Policy. “This is of course a dramatic course of action, without guarantee of success, and at best would only buy time for the uncertain struggle to retake Sunni Iraq (and eventually parts of Syria).”
Sen. McCain wants to send retired Gen. David Petraeus and the rest of the team that “won” Iraq back to take care of business, although McCain says he is not in favor of sending troops. How even the legendary architect of the Anbar Awakening is supposed to finish the job with no soldiers is a mystery.
Retired Gen. Wesley Clarke advocates sending in Special Forces along with airstrikes and drones. This, he insists, is not boots on the ground “in the classical sense.” Don’t they wear boots?
Obama is hoping to persuade Maliki to change his spots.
“This is not solely, or even primarily, a military challenge,” he said Friday. “So any action that we may take to provide assistance to Iraqi security forces has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq's leaders to set aside sectarian differences, to promote stability and account for the legitimate interests of all of Iraq's communities, and to continue to build the capacity of an effective security force.”
If the prime minister makes nice with his Sunni compatriots maybe ISIS will go away?
3. Benign neglect
Former Secretary of State and not-quite-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wants to stay out of it. Speaking to the BBC in an interview aired Friday, she said that military aid for Iraq was “not a role for the United States” at this point in time.
At George Washington University, also on Friday, she went further, calling the Maliki government "dysfunctional, unrepresentative, authoritarian" and saying "there's no reason on earth that I know of that we would ever sacrifice a single American life for that."