Iraq: It’s not about us
July 2nd, 2014
12:17 PM ET

Iraq: It’s not about us

By Will Marshall, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Will Marshall is the president of the Progressive Policy Institute. The views expressed are his own.

The debate over how to keep Iraq from falling apart reveals a peculiarly American kind of self-centeredness. When things blow up abroad, we often spend more time arguing about the U.S. reaction to the crisis than what triggered it in the first place.

So it is with the stunning rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which styles itself as a resurrected “caliphate” to which all Muslims owe allegiance. Instead of focusing on how to protect Americans and our regional partners from a new jihadist malignancy, much of Washington’s political class is consumed by recriminations over who is to blame for resurgent Sunni terrorism in the Middle East.

Is it George W. Bush’s fault for invading Iraq in 2003 and cluelessly stirring up a sectarian hornet’s nest? Or did Barack Obama squander America’s costly success in stabilizing Iraq in his haste to “end” an unpopular war?

Both indictments contain a large grain of truth. But is this really the time to be pointing fingers and rehearsing bitter debates about the wisdom of the invasion, the “surge” or the U.S. exit? U.S. leaders should leave such questions to historians and concentrate instead on mustering a coherent response to the present predicament. This isn’t a naïve plea to take the “politics” out of national security – which is both impossible and potentially dangerous – or to ignore the lessons of past mistakes. But we shouldn’t let the interminable argument over whose “lessons of Iraq” should prevail get in the way of a clear assessment of the new threat.

Washington’s self-absorption obscures a basic truth: This crisis is not about us. America is not the problem in the Middle East. The problem is the problem.

President Obama has often maintained that Bush erred in defining the problem too broadly as Muslim terrorism in general. Yet it’s clear now that, in fixating on al Qaeda, Obama has defined the problem too narrowly. The threat we face is Islamist extremism, especially in its millenarian Sunni incarnation. U.S. forces have routed al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but that hydra headed beast keeps sprouting up elsewhere: in Yemen, Somalia, North and sub-Saharan Africa, and now, for the second time, Iraq.

Washington has committed its share of errors in the Middle East, but America didn’t invent the Islamists’ violent ideology. Nor are we responsible for the endemic political chaos and bloodshed that has convulsed the region in the post-colonial era. Political Islam’s roots lie in an historic failure to establish competent and legitimate governments, with well-functioning markets, across a region riven by ethnic, tribal and sectarian rivalries.

ISIS’s rise in the Levant is beyond destabilizing. Underscoring their mad ambition to erase existing borders and revive the medieval caliphate, the rebels last week renamed themselves “Islamist State” and demanded that all Muslims show fealty to their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This is a direct challenge to the erstwhile leader of Sunni jihadism, al Qaeda, which has disavowed ISIS because of its atrocities against Shiite “apostates.” But Americans can take little solace in this turn of events since the Islamist State is a threat not only to Iraq, but also to America’s other friends in the neighborhood: Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait and Israel. And of course it presents a mortal peril to Shiite Iran.

There’s no need to speculate about what life would be like in the new caliphate. In Mosul and other cities it has captured, ISIS has been perpetrating the full panoply of horrors we’ve come to associate with jihadi fanaticism – suicide and truck bombings aimed at civilians, mass executions of soldiers and police, kidnappings, beheadings and allegedly even crucifixions.

The Islamic State doesn’t appear to have America in its sights – yet. But as Obama said recently, the group poses a “medium and long-term threat to American security.” For one thing, it is bigger, better organized and richer than al Qaeda. Jihadist websites are already thrumming with excitement over its rapid advances. Western intelligence officials are especially worried about the many foreign jihadis in ISIL’s ranks, hundreds of whom hold European and U.S. passports and could readily bring the jihad home with them.

The Iraqi army, which had crumpled before the ISIS blitzkrieg on Mosul, has regrouped and has been attempting to retake Tikrit. But even if government forces can stop the rebel’s advance, few analysts believe they will be able to dislodge ISIS from Sunni regions of Iraq and Syria.

President Obama has ruled out major U.S. involvement in Iraq again. He’s also resisted pleas for U.S. air strikes from Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whom U.S. officials rightly blame for systematically alienating Iraq’s Sunni minority after U.S. forces left in 2011. Without a new and truly inclusive Iraqi government, U.S. bombing of the Islamic State will enhance its prestige with would-be jihadis and convince disgruntled Sunnis that Washington is taking the Shiite side of a regional sectarian war.

Still, the United States cannot live with an Islamist State that foments violence and instability and plots ceaselessly against our friends. A complex, two-front struggle lies ahead. In Syria, Washington must at last get serious about turning the Free Syrian Army into an effective fighting force that eventually will be able to topple the al-Assad dictatorship (abetted by Iran and Hezbollah) and then expel ISIS and other foreign jihadis. In Iraq, we will need to help Iraqi forces (backed by Iran) and the Kurds contain and weaken the Islamic State, all the while pressing for a new government willing to share power with Iraq’s Sunnis.

All this puts Obama, who promised to extricate America from Middle East conflicts, in a bind. How to get rid of ISIS without large-scale military intervention? The White House appears to be hoping for another revolt by Sunni tribes, just like the 2006-2007 Anbar “awakening” that helped U.S. forces eviscerate ISIS’s forerunner, al Qaeda in Iraq. But that may require a robust if covert U.S. counterterrorism campaign.

One thing is for sure: inaction is not an option. And whatever course Obama chooses will have a greater chance of success if it has broad public and political support back home. That’s why it’s time to move on from a bootless “who lost Iraq” debate and rally our partners in the region against the new jihadist menace.

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Topics: Foreign Policy • Iraq • Middle East

soundoff (65 Responses)
  1. Johannesd

    "America didn’t invent the Islamists’ violent ideology". This is off course a dramatic simplification of the truth. First-off there is no such thing as a 'islamist violent ideology'. 99% of the Islamic population on this earth are peaceful and law-abiding people who live in harmony with other religions and population groups. Secondly, to ignore that American foreign policy in the Middle-east during the last 3 decades hasn't been the ideal breeding-ground for terrorists, and as such has stimulated to a very large extent the violence that the author is referring to is just dishonest. Yes this is about the massive failure of American foreign policies in the Middle-east.

    July 4, 2014 at 4:47 am | Reply
  2. Name*stranger

    I believe that the US is actually happy about ISIS and all this is just a propaganda. They are going to arm syrian rebels. Who are they? Arent they just ISIS? Who other than Assad and ISIS have power in syria? In Iraq also Kerry met with Barezani, a Kurdish leader seeking independence. This again makes iraqi government more at risk and implicitely helps ISIS. The fact never explained is that Assad and Maliki are both kinda Iranian allies and US doesnt like them.

    July 4, 2014 at 9:58 am | Reply
  3. raymond spada

    How do you STOP a expanding Muslim "Caliphate"- History provides a clue. The Umayyad Caliphate(8th century) was first stopped by the Byzantines under emperor Leo III in the heroic siege of Constantinople in 717-18 and at the other end of Europe at the battle of Tours by Charles Martel and the Franks in 732. Brute Military FORCE is the ONLY WAY to stop zealous Islamic warriors-- Don't disregard this History lesson !!!

    July 4, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Reply
    • justthetruthandonlytruth

      The only thing that stopped Europe from falling to the Ottomans was mud. They were unprepared for it and their Cannon were bogged down, stuck. It was an act of God, and it will take an act of god to stop ISIS.

      July 4, 2014 at 1:13 pm | Reply
  4. justthetruthandonlytruth

    "al Qaeda, which has disavowed ISIS because of its atrocities against Shiite “apostates.”" Why does everyone keep saying this is why AQ split with ISIS? The split happened when Al-Baghdadi attempted a merger with AQ's Al-Nusrah Front, against Zawahiri's wishes (about half of Al-Nusrah deserted AQ and joined ISIS). It had NOTHING TO DO WITH ISIS being brutal, and the dissagreement about the Shia and should they be fought, that was years ago.

    July 4, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Reply
  5. Greg Walker

    This situation will be as handily resolved as the situation in Northern Ireland has been...

    Yes, I jest.

    July 4, 2014 at 1:11 pm | Reply
  6. EA Marco Polo

    [Iraq must get compensation (US$ 11 trillion) from The US]

    The US jails 2.2 million own citizens, it is about half of world prisoners, because the US has most thieves and murderers, so the US is the most immoral country in the 21st century.

    The immoral US government murders 100,000 Iraqi people to steal Iraqi oil. Iraqi people and government support Syrian government for justice, human right and democracy, so the immoral US government makes the "ISIS" to hurt Iraqi people secretly for stopping the cooperation between Iraq and Syria.

    Thus the US is worst country on violating human right in the 21st century. Iraq should get an apology and compensation (US$ 11 trillion) from the corrupt and immoral US government.

    July 4, 2014 at 9:04 pm | Reply
  7. Matt

    You can only work with the clay you are given, the US is the best military in the world so it not lack of money or the ability to train foreign forces. It is the clay you are given to work with now you hope that self preservation is the motivating factor to fight compliancy, incompetence, laziness. But from Mali to Iraq the West Bank etc, etc it has not to be the case. Now any soldier rely on their training for an objective but mainly self preservation to stay alive in the process. Now as far as abandonment of the Sunni's we still have tribesmen in Laos that are waiting for us to bring them home from the 70's. It is what we do and it is not new.

    July 5, 2014 at 1:05 am | Reply
  8. Jean-Marie Losson

    Islam is not a religion, it is a political movement. Just like Nazism was.

    July 5, 2014 at 6:10 am | Reply
  9. Jean-Marie Losson

    The difference between a moderate Muslim and an extremist is only a question of time – as we have seen so many times.
    Never forget that 0.1% of 1.2 billion is still 1.2 million – that's how large a small minority is !

    July 5, 2014 at 6:17 am | Reply
  10. j. von hettlingen

    What's so contradictory with Obama's intention in the region is that it aims at helping the Sunni – moderate – rebels in Syria to topple the Assad regime, while trying to advise the Shia-led government in Iraq to eradicate the Sunni Islamists. It requires much adeptness at acting in a way, that will not alienate regional key-players Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

    July 6, 2014 at 11:17 am | Reply
  11. Ed Rhyan

    I know during our multicultural briefing they were putting out only 3% were jihadist or radical, and that the muslim pop was an estimated 200 million. That is still a ton of people at 3%. After watching a video posted to my Facebook and hearing its more like 15-25% of 1.2 billion muslims....that is hysterically terrifying. if 900 million other muslims can't contain the fanaticism of 180-300 million other muslims... How is 200 thousand troops going to do it even with a 11+ year time span on a huge planet of several continents with so many varying governments not even being close to being in coalescence with each other. Why wasn't TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS spent on securing our borders instead of billions of dollars learning and implementing better ways to spy on our own people. Forcing any kind of internet provider, cell provider, phone provider and what ever else to give records of so many law abiding Americans. I fried my brain in the desert like it was a dessert for the stupid monster. The US should JUST STOP THE MADNESS and get out. Don't forget Obama oversaw 6 of the last 11 years of this craziness! Americans stop living in the moment and look back to where you have been. Life is more prevalent than the length of 15 min that a PC comment that might be popular on social media. Regain our intelligence and common sense.

    July 6, 2014 at 11:55 am | Reply
  12. biogreen2

    The Sunis and the Shiites will balance each other out, if only we will go away and leave them alone – just as they did before Shrub had his little adventure.

    July 8, 2014 at 7:44 am | Reply
  13. williamcrisler

    THE MADNESS IS NEVER GOING TO STOP UNTIL TOTAL WORLD DOMINANCE IS ACHIEVED. THEN THE IN HOUSE FIGHTING WIL BE FOR LEADERSHIP OF KINGDOM, AND THE REST OF THE PANET WILL BE SUBMISSIVE TO THE KINGDOM. THT IS WHY THE WORLD WILL NOT LET THIS HAPPEN.....

    July 9, 2014 at 2:00 am | Reply
  14. Mamd

    The world majority will never put up with extremism. ISIS will only gain strength in the weakest territory. Hitler did the same thing as he rolled thru a defenseless Prague. In the end the victory was meaningless. ISIS will never take over any area of real power, and when they try, it will only bring them closer to losing everything. Perhaps ISIS is a symbol of hate the world needs to regain focus against, even Iran and al-Qaeda don't defend. ISIS represents the worst in terrorism and extremism as its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claimed caliphate. Basically stating he is the self proclaimed leader of over a billion Sunni Muslims. How arrogant! There is no bigger target on extremism in the history of mankind than in the last few months. We are doing the smart thing, nothing. Let the world fester its opinion against them, and extremists will continue to kill them selves like they have for 1400 years. Their worse enemy is themselves.

    July 9, 2014 at 11:50 am | Reply
  15. sand_mamba

    lol, now that its been revealed that baghdadi was mossad and US trained, to serve israeli purposes of taking the wars away from their mainland, makes all u hipsters look like a bunch of clowns with ur fingers pointing outwards when the real dung bags are to be found within.

    July 15, 2014 at 10:25 pm | Reply
  16. PJ

    In the current Iraqi fiasco, we find the Shia majority abandoning the Sunni to ISIS/ISIL.
    2 pertinent questions:
    First, why is the USA the only country coming to the aid of Iraq?
    Second, where are the noticeably absent Sunni majority neighbors in this fight (Kuwait, Saudi, Jordan, and Turkey)?

    August 8, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Reply
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