It is time for a diminished U.S. role in Iraq and Syria.
The lightning-like advances by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have triggered a charge by Sen. John McCain, former Vice President Dick Cheney and other Republicans that President Obama “lost Iraq” because he withdrew U.S. troops from that country at the end of 2011 and provided inadequate support to the so-called “moderate” alternatives to ISIS in Syria’s civil war.
According to these critics, keeping about 10,000 U.S. combat troops in Iraq would have forced Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki to share power with Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds rather than to govern principally on behalf of Iraq’s Shiite majority.
This Republican effort to score political points conveniently sidesteps President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 in search of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and Bush’s mistaken assumption that Iraq would become a model for Western-style democracy in the Middle East. The GOP criticism also fails to acknowledge that although Obama had campaigned in 2008 on a promise to move more rapidly, he delayed the complete withdrawal until the end of 2011, in accordance with an agreement negotiated by Bush.
Even Obama’s critics concede that leaving combat troops in Iraq after 2011 would have required a new status-of-forces agreement that, among other things, would have protected those troops from being prosecuted in Iraqi courts. Although these critics claim Obama mishandled the negotiations, the bottom line is that the Iraqi parliament was unwilling to approve such an agreement. In any event, since Iraqi politicians could not build a broad-based, popularly supported government after eight years of occupation by more than 100,000 U.S. troops, it is questionable that the continued presence of only 10,000 would have been decisive. After all, even though they are facing their country’s disintegration, Iraqi politicians continue to be unable to form a national unity government.
Notwithstanding the Washington blame-game, the immediate question is what to do now?
Today’s conflict is the latest iteration of a struggle between Sunnis and Shiites that began with a disagreement over the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad following his death almost
1,400 years ago. Obama has committed a limited number of troops to advise and assess the Iraqi army, gather intelligence about ISIS and identify potential bombing and counter-terrorism targets.
He also has proposed to expand a heretofore clandestine CIA mission to assist the “moderate” rebels in Syria. It is difficult to imagine that any of Obama’s initiatives will have much impact on either country’s civil war. At best, they will help the U.S. target terrorist leaders for strikes by drones and special operations, a strategy that has had some success in Pakistan and Yemen.
Establishing a new Sunni-majority state in parts of Iraq and Syria might not endanger the U.S., except for two facts: ISIS is the most powerful Sunni faction, and ISIS has pledged to surpass al-Qaida in launching terrorist attacks against the U.S.
Some experts predict that because ISIS is so extreme, other Sunnis will attempt to seize control of the new state from the terrorists. Although such a development might force ISIS to concentrate on protecting its base in the Middle East rather than on attacking the U.S., there is no guarantee that a civil war among Sunni factions would conclude with the eradication of ISIS.
Understandably, the heavy civilian casualties and the number of Iraqis and Syrians forced to flee their homes have aroused American sympathies. Unfortunately, diplomacy is unlikely to bring peace as long as the warring parties are unwilling either to share power or to accept the breakup of Iraq and Syria.
Therefore, other than providing humanitarian aid, there is little the U.S. can do without a major military intervention.
Stabilizing Iraq and Syria would require stationing more than 100,000 U.S. troops in that part of the world for the foreseeable future. For numerous reasons, such intervention would be a serious mistake. First, despite dubious prospects for success, intervention would assure the loss of more American lives and risk U.S. involvement in a war beyond Iraq and Syria.
Second, it would likely increase the number of radicals volunteering for terrorist attacks against the U.S. Third, to be viable, it would require a tax increase and possibly the revival of the draft.
Many of us are uncomfortable with the extent of NSA surveillance. Some of us occasionally become irritated by TSA screening at airports.
But, a strategy to detect and thwart potential attacks by ISIS terrorists is far preferable to military intervention.
William Lloyd of Somerset represented Somerset County in the state House of Representatives (1981-1998) and served as the state’s Small Business Advocate (November 2003-October 2011). He writes a monthly column for The Tribune-Democrat.