On Not Taking The Neocon Bait


David Harsanyi sees few good options for salvaging the outcomes of the Iraq War:

Some will, no doubt, argue that doing nothing (and we might very well be doing something soon) means that more than 4,400 U.S. troops and over $700 billion had been wasted in a war that ended but was not won. Perhaps. But a more important matter is this: would the death of another 4,000, or 400, or four, bring about a preferable outcome or a set of conditions that allow the United States to convincingly declare victory? If a decade of nation building brought us this, what could we possible gain by seriously reengaging? Clearly, to make it work the American people would need to be prepared to make a generational commitment – and polls don’t tell us that we’re in the mood for an open-ended conflict in the Middle East.

These are horrible choices, indeed. While millions of civilians no longer experience life under the regime of Saddam Hussein, and we should not forget the sacrifice thousands of soldiers made to allow that to happen, it gets increasingly difficult to imagine that the United States has gained anything worthwhile from its invasion of Iraq. It’s difficult to understand how spending another five or ten years sorting out a sectarian civil war can possible be in our best interests.

The UK, for one, won’t get involved. Les Gelb zooms out to see the core question. The fundamental American blind spot remains what it was in Vietnam:

What happened in Iraq was history as usual. The U.S. fights in Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya and Vietnam and other places (maybe next in Syria), provides billions of dollars in arms, trains the friendly soldiers, then begins to pull out—and what happens? Our good allies on whom we’ve squandered our sacred lives and our wealth fall apart. That’s what’s happening in Iraq now.

The alternative – staying in those countries for ever – is just a euphemism for empire in a world that emphatically does not want us, and with an America that rightly wants us to focus on the struggles at home. As for the question as to whether around 5,000 Jihadists can threaten the security of the United States, the Israelis seem utterly unruffled – and they live much, much closer to the threat. There’s something awry when a continental superpower thousands of miles away is more jittery than Jews on the front lines. Keating identifies one good reason why the American people, with any luck, will not rise to the neocon bait yet again:

More than a decade ago, the U.S. public and political establishment supported a war in Iraq partly based on the false pretense that it was allied with al-Qaida. Now, largely as a result of that war and its aftermath, a large portion of Iraq is under the control of an al-Qaida splinter group and America seems largely indifferent. …

There were discussions of “Iraq fatigue”—the sense that the American public is simply tired of hearing about the country’s troubles—as far back as 2006. Supplanted since then by crises from Libya, to Egypt, to Syria, I’d guess that fatigue is even more entrenched now and while I expect some criticism of the White House on this, I doubt we’re going to see a groundswell of public demand for a robust response to Iraq’s latest crisis.

Although the elites will do their best to whip it up. Which is why one should be grateful that the Washington Post wields a clout far smaller now than it did to such devastating effect in 2003. Gordon Lubold and John Hudson offer another reason for why military intervention – even air-strikes – are unlikely to work at all:

[D]espite the crisis, there is little likelihood that the American government would consider putting any troops on the ground. That means that airstrikes are the only real option for a potential U.S. military intervention into Iraq as the crisis there continues to grow. That’s not a simple endeavor, however. … The Iraqi security forces don’t have troops capable of relaying detailed targeting information, which would likely require the Pentagon or the CIA to send small numbers of American personnel into Iraq to handle that difficult mission. Without adequate ground intelligence, the United States could run the risk of accidentally killing Iraqi security forces or, even worse, civilians.

In a splendidly sane piece, Fareed Zakaria shoots down the hawks’ fantasy that Obama could have kept troops in the country if he had really wanted to:

I would have preferred to see a small American force in Iraq to try to prevent the country’s collapse. But let’s remember why this force is not there. Maliki refused to provide the guarantees that every other country in the world that hosts U.S. forces offers. Some commentators have blamed the Obama administration for negotiating badly or halfheartedly and perhaps this is true. But here’s what a senior Iraqi politician told me in the days when the U.S. withdrawal was being discussed: “It will not happen. Maliki cannot allow American troops to stay on. Iran has made very clear to Maliki that its No. 1 demand is that there be no American troops remaining in Iraq. And Maliki owes them.” He reminded me that Maliki spent 24 years in exile, most of them in Tehran and Damascus, and his party was funded by Iran for most of its existence. And in fact, Maliki’s government has followed policies that have been pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian.

And Larison, echoing Marc Lynch’s insight from last night, is at a loss for why we’d want to double down on the mistake of propping up Maliki:

Maliki was already governing in a sectarian and semi-authoritarian manner when the U.S. had a major military presence in the country, so it seems clear that retaining a smaller presence would have had no effect on him and his allies. It is even more doubtful that the U.S. would use this leverage if it had it. This is the trouble with trying to condition future aid on improvements in Maliki’s behavior: when push comes to shove, the U.S. usually refuses to cut off aid because it doesn’t want to “abandon” its client. …

Intervening militarily to prevent further advances by ISIS would commit the U.S. to acting as Maliki’s protector indefinitely, and the more resources that the U.S. commits to this the harder it will be to pull the plug at some point in the future.

Drum simply marvels at those who still think the US can solve problems like these with brute force:

If we committed US troops to every major trouble spot in the Mideast, we’d have troops in Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Lots of troops. The hawks won’t admit this outright, but that’s what their rhetoric implies. They simply refuse to believe the obvious: that America doesn’t have that much leverage over what’s happening in the region. Small commitments of trainers and arms won’t make more than a speck of difference. Big commitments are unsustainable. And the US military still doesn’t know how to successfully fight a counterinsurgency. (That’s no knock on the Pentagon, really. No one else knows how to fight a counterinsurgency either.)

This is painfully hard for Americans to accept, but sometimes you can’t just send in the Marines.

There are, after all, other options. Instead of a bombing campaign, Nussaibah Younis argues for a political and diplomatic intervention:

The United States must use its assistance as leverage to prevent Mr. Maliki from becoming, in effect, a dictator. Many young Iraqis who join the Sunni militants already see the government as a sectarian oppressor. The Maliki government has targeted senior Sunni politicians, and failed to respond to Sunni demands for reform. Its exclusionary approach has helped enable extremism, and the United States must ensure that Mr. Maliki does not use the new outbreak of fighting to shore up his authority.

Moreover, the United States must compel the Iraqi Army to adopt a sensitive, population-centered approach to reversing the militants’ conquests. If the Iraqi Army sends Shiite militant groups or Kurdish forces to the heart of Sunni-dominated Mosul, or if it carpet-bombs the city and arbitrarily arrests or kills groups, it will alienate the hearts and minds essential to winning this battle.

Henri J. Barkey argues that the spiraling conflict means that now we really have to do something about Syria, but that does not necessarily mean to go in with guns blazing. He suggests we take advantage of the suddenly aligned interests of Iran and its rivals:

Coincidentally, the fall of Mosul occurred during Iranian President Rouhani’s visit to Turkey. Despite the fact that they are deeply engaged on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict, the two countries have agreed to disagree. The reason is simple: They have other important shared interests, such as oil and gas trade and political support for the Iranian nuclear program. Considering Syria’s importance to both regimes, perhaps Turkish-Iranian pragmatism can be bent in the direction of agreement to construct a transitional arrangement for Syria? Both now need face-saving policy options. The trick is to come up with an interim deal that includes Assad’s departure, though perhaps not immediately, in exchange for the safeguarding of some core Iranian interests in a future Syrian political system.

This may sound improbable, and it is. Nonetheless, the fall of Mosul shows that the Syria crisis, which was almost from the beginning an Iraqi crisis as well, requires a regional solution. The Obama Administration was right not to intervene directly in Syria with military force, but wrong to construe its options as either war-making or what amounts to passivity. The perception of Washington policymaking in Syria as dithering and less-than-professional has arguably spread throughout the region. The Administration can begin to reverse this image if it is willing to encourage the region to come up with its own solution. That effort would have to start in consultation with Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and it would have to include Iran as well in the end

(Photo: A picture taken with a mobile phone shows an armoured vehicle belonging to Iraqi security forces in flames on June 10, 2014, after hundreds of militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) launched a major assault on the security forces in Mosul. By STR/AFP/Getty Images)