Richard Davis: Obama got it right in Iraq, so far

Published: Wednesday, June 25 2014 8:54 a.m. MDT

The president walks a tightrope — too little intervention and Iraq descends into an indefinite civil war and endangers the stability of other nations. Too much intervention and Americans become angry and U.S. troops once again are mired.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File, Associated Press

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President Obama’s decision to send military advisers and U.S. Navy ships to Iraq is the right one. The president should go a little further and order targeted airstrikes to stop the momentum of ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). The threat to Iraq and the Middle East is real.

ISIS is far more dangerous than Saddam Hussein ever was. Hussein kept his distance from Islamic extremists. On the other hand, ISIS is an Islamic extremist organization that seeks to create another Taliban-like state. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where ISIS rules in Iraq and Syria, it has imposed sharia law and executed hundreds of opponents. Earlier this month, ISIS claimed it killed 1,700 Iraqi soldiers who had already surrendered. To prove its claim, it released a series of videos showing executions. Even al-Qaida has repudiated ISIS.

So far, ISIS has taken control of several major cities in Iraq, including Mosul (the second largest city), Fallujah, Tikrit, Ramadi and Tal Afar. Several more cities have fallen in the past few days. ISIS is now fighting for control of one of Iraq’s largest oil refineries and is within striking distance of Baghdad. By forging ties with Sunnis upset with the Iraqi government and remnants of the Baathist Party of Saddam Hussein and acquiring financial resources from its territorial conquests, ISIS has established itself as the most potent threat to the Iraqi state.

Nevertheless, a role for U.S. ground troops in Iraq is not an option for Obama. After more than 4,000 American military deaths over a nine-year period, Americans have no appetite for re-entering Iraq. Indeed, most agree it was a mistake to invade Iraq in the first place.

But to do nothing means the possible creation of an extremist Islamic state that would eliminate any chance of a democratic government in Iraq. Such a state would further destabilize Iraq through a prolonged civil war. And it would create potential conflict with Iraq’s neighbors, particularly Iran and Turkey.

This civil war was avoidable. In 2005, Vice President Joe Biden urged the creation of a loose federal structure for Iraq consisting of three semi-autonomous regions for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds and warned that failure to do so would lead to civil war. Had such a plan been implemented then, each group would have played a significant role in governing themselves rather than seeking to control the whole nation.

It also could have been averted if the Iraqi government had broadened its coalition to include Sunnis and Kurds rather than forcing them out. Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and members of Congress have repeatedly urged Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki to reach out to the Sunni tribes who now have joined forces with the ISIS. During the U.S. troop surge in 2007, these tribes were persuaded by U.S. forces to abandon their fight against the regime. Now, as a result of Malaki’s intransigence, they are back in the fray — on the other side.

The president walks a tightrope — too little intervention and Iraq descends into an indefinite civil war and endangers the stability of other nations. Too much intervention and Americans become angry and U.S. troops once again are mired in a long-term conflict. His decision so far is intended to give the Iraqi army some support in fighting ISIS. But it also offers the Iraqi government some breathing space to achieve what is really needed — a political solution. Whether Iraqi political leaders will take advantage of that opportunity is an open question.

The U.S. cannot solve Iraq’s problems. It cannot permanently prop up a regime that is suicidal. However, in the short term, the U.S. can be helpful in pushing the parties to seek a peaceful resolution. Hopefully, the time Obama is giving Iraqis will be well spent in getting their house in order. Otherwise, Iraq faces a lengthy civil war between Sunnis and Shiites that will further destabilize the Middle East. Either an extremist Islamic state or a lengthy civil war would be a tragic aftermath of the sacrifice so many U.S. servicemen and women gave for a democratic Iraq.

Richard Davis is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.

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