Iraq de­bate misses the point

Lesotho Times - - Opinion -

SHOULD the United States have in­vaded Iraq? That was the ques­tion oc­cu­py­ing the minds of Repub­li­can can­di­dates for the pres­i­dency over the week­end, even as mil­i­tants from the Is­lamic State of Iraq and Syria rolled into one of the coun­try’s most im­por­tant cities, Ra­madi, slaugh­ter­ing hun­dreds of peo­ple, and rout­ing (U.s.-backed) Iraqi gov­ern­ment forces.

The fall of Ra­madi is a dis­as­ter not just for the peo­ple of Iraq, but also for US for­eign pol­icy. Re­mem­ber, it was only last sum­mer that the United States joined the fight against ISIS and Pres­i­dent Barack Obama launched “Op­er­a­tion In­her­ent Re­solve,” aim­ing to “de­grade and de­stroy” the self-de­scribed Is­lamic State, which con­trols large swaths of Syria and Iraq while also drawing the sup­port of mil­i­tant groups and in­di­vid­u­als around the world.

So, while the 2003 in­va­sion launched by Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush was un­ques­tion­ably a ma­jor mo­ment in his­tory — and cer­tainly war­rants dis­cus­sion by those who wish to sit at the big desk in the Oval Of­fice — there is surely a far more im­por­tant and ur­gent ques­tion that all can­di­dates must now an­swer: What would you do about what is hap­pen­ing in Iraq right now?

Of course, that is a much more dif­fi­cult ques­tion for the can­di­dates — politi­cians would rather tell vot­ers some­thing they al­ready be­lieve about the is­sue, an ap­proach that has the po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage of hav­ing prac­ti­cally no con­se­quences should the can­di­date win the pres­i­dency.

In con­trast, the ques­tion of how you would han­dle to­day’s cri­sis in Iraq and Syria is not only ex­tremely dif­fi­cult, but it also con­tains the added prob­lem that an an­swer that sat­is­fies vot­ers now could put the next pres­i­dent un­der pres­sure to fol­low through af­ter the 2016 elec­tion.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and the Pen­tagon have, for their part, been pre­tend­ing the plan to de­feat ISIS is work­ing. They in­sist that the Is­lamist ex­trem­ists are on the de­fen­sive, on their heels. For ex­am­ple, Marine Brig. Gen. Thomas Wei­d­ley, one of the top of­fi­cials for the op­er­a­tion, told a re­porter that in Ra­madi, ISIS was “at­tempt­ing to hold pre­vi­ous gains while con­duct­ing small-scale lo­cal­ized ha­rass­ing at­tacks.” Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry, mean­while, said “I am ab­so­lutely con­fi­dent in the days ahead” the Ra­madi losses will be reversed.

But Iraqi of­fi­cials have glumly con­ceded the city has fallen, and the en­tire battle a re­minder of how weak the Iraqi army re­mains and how dan­ger­ously di­vided the coun­try is.

This mat­ters for both sym­bolic and strate­gic rea­sons.

Ra­madi, where hun­dred of Amer­i­can troops died, is the cap­i­tal of An­bar Prov­ince, the coun­try’s largest, and is the heart of Sunni Iraq. It is also the place where the Amer­i­can­crafted “Sunni Awak­en­ing” built up Iraq’s Sunni tribes into a force that de­feated al Qaeda in Iraq, the fore­run­ner of ISIS.

Now, Iraq is re­port­edly de­ploy­ing Iran-backed Shi­ite mili­tias, a re­sponse that runs counter to Mid­dle Eastern and Iraqi sta­bil­ity, risks strength­en­ing an Ira­nian regime that al­ready trou­bles Amer­ica’s Arab al­lies, and adds to sec­tar­ian ten­sions within Iraq. In­deed, Iraq’s Sun­nis fear that the coun­try’s cen­tral gov­ern­ment, with Iran’s help, is in the process of seiz­ing con­trol of all Sunni ar­eas.

Just as im­por­tantly, Ra­madi lies only 70 miles west of Bagh­dad, putting ISIS ever closer to the cap­i­tal. Sim­ply put, if Bagh­dad falls, we can say good­bye to Iraq as we know it -the coun­try will break into a Sunni state, con­trolled by ISIS, at least ini­tially, a Shi­ite state, loyal to Iran, and a Kur­dish state in the north.

So, what to do? Un­for­tu­nately, the 2016 can­di­dates have lit­tle to say on this is­sue right now.

In Fe­bru­ary, Hil­lary Clin­ton de­scribed what is es­sen­tially Obama’s strat­egy: us­ing US air power to com­ple­ment sol­diers from the re­gion, par­tic­u­larly Iraq, to attack ISIS.

Repub­li­cans, mean­while, mostly vow to be “de­ci­sive.” Jeb Bush vows “Greater global en­gage­ment...” and a strat­egy that would down­play diplo­macy and aim to “take them out.”

Scott Walker em­bar­rassed him­self with his anal­ogy that he was able to crush Wis­con­sin’s unions, so there­fore he can han­dle chal­lenges like ISIS.

And while Marco Ru­bio did of­fer a some­what more nu­anced ap­proach, say­ing the United States should pro­vide air sup­port for a mil­i­tary ground force made up of Sunni fighters from re­gional gov­ern­ments, he has also come in for crit­i­cism for his re­sponse to the ques­tion of whether the US in­va­sion was a mis­take.

The can­di­dates will have to do bet­ter than this, be­cause if Pres­i­dent Obama’s cur­rent strat­egy does not start pro­duc­ing re­sults soon, the ISIS chal­lenge will take cen­ter stage in for­eign pol­icy de­bates, and can­di­dates will have to put to­gether much more de­tailed and co­her­ent pro­pos­als for tack­ling the is­sue.

It will not be enough for Hil­lary Clin­ton, for ex­am­ple, to sug­gest we might not be in this place if the Pres­i­dent had lis­tened to her pro­pos­als as sec­re­tary of state to lend more mus­cu­lar sup­port to Syr­ian rebels.

But an ef­fec­tive, com­pre­hen­sive strat­egy to de­feat ISIS and save Iraq will not be easy to put to­gether. For a start, it will re­quire tack­ling the group in both Syria and Iraq. It will also re­quire dar­ing to up­set the Ira­ni­ans, whose al­lied mili­tias have be­come a ma­jor arm against ISIS on Iraqi soil.

In ad­di­tion, it will mean pres­sur­ing the Iraqi gov­ern­ment to em­power Sunni tribal fighters, as the Sunni Awak­en­ing groups did. And fi­nally, it will re­quire work­ing much faster to cre­ate a vi­able al­ter­na­tive to Bashar al-as­sad in Syria, be­cause to­day the only op­tions there right now are the vi­cious dic­ta­tor­ship that is in place, or blood­thirsty Is­lamist mili­tias — ter­ri­ble choices all.

Th­ese are is­sues that mat­ter to­day and that will im­pact the fu­ture, so vot­ers need to hear them be­ing dis­cussed in an open and hon­est way. And they are is­sues that will re­quire some tough de­ci­sions — de­ci­sions that the next pres­i­dent will not have the luxury of 12 years of hind­sight be­fore mak­ing.

is a world af­fairs colum­nist for The Miami Her­ald and World Pol­i­tics Re­view.

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