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Backing the Wrong Horse in Iraq

The Obama administration’s announcement that it is sending several hundred additional advisors to Iraq is consistent with America’s failed policy in the country. The premise of the Obama administration’s policy – that sending “advisors” and some military equipment will enable the Iraqi government to ‘man up’ – is flawed because it fails to acknowledge the foundation of the problem and the dramatically altered dynamics on the ground. Mr. Obama apparently believes that being seen to be doing something is better than doing nothing, but he is wrong. The U.S. tried a war, installing a prime minister, and implementing a post-war counter-insurgency strategy. None of them worked for a reason: The Iraqi government is the wrong partner.

It took a long time for the U.S. to acknowledge that continuing to back Nouri al-Maliki for as long as it did was a big mistake, but by the time it did, it was really too late to salvage the situation. Iran is running the government and a feckless military. Trying to support the government or the military now is based on an alternate reality that ‘could’ have become true a dozen years ago, but bears little resemblance to the reality today. What will it take for the U.S. government to admit that what it is doing isn’t working?

Faced with a failed government and military — and with Iran driving the bus — the smart thing for the U.S. to do would be to acknowledge that a tripartite federal state is the best that can be hoped for at this juncture, even though that may not be possible, given the ongoing strength and territorial gains of the Islamic State (Daesh).

If the U.S. were to successfully partner with the Kurds and ‘friendly’ Sunni forces, such a partnership may not stop Daesh from effectively creating its caliphate in northern Iraq. It remains to be seen whether Daesh will take Baghdad and the south of the country, but it is certainly possible, if not likely.

The current U.S. “incremental” approach to Iraq creates an illusion that it is providing effective assistance to the Iraqi government. There is no way that hundreds of advisors can possibly make a difference. It is even questionable that sending tens of thousands of troops to battle Daesh would work, as it would probably only succeed in becoming a recruiting magnet for new Daesh devotees. Engaging the U.S. on the battlefield, is, after all, exactly what Daesh seeks.

While President Obama would undoubtedly prefer to simply leave Iraq alone, recognizing that engaging it at the present time is really a fool’s errand, that is a luxury that will not be granted to him. The rise of Iran and Daesh in the country means that he has no choice but to remain engaged. That being the case, rather than simply waiting out the next 18 months and handing the baton (and a failed policy) to a new U.S. president, he should be using his remaining time in office to pursue a policy that at least stands a chance of creating the enabling conditions for measured success after he leaves office.

Given Daesh’s explosive success over the past year, for all we know, it will control all of Iraq by the time Obama leaves office. What, then, would be the next U.S. president’s options? It’s not like the American populace will suddenly shift in favor of embarking on yet another war, or that there will suddenly be hundreds of billions of dollars available to be allocated to fight such a war, or that the chances of success would be enhanced with the passage of time.

The only sensible thing for President Obama to do now is to admit that what the U.S. has done and is presently doing isn’t working, and to embark on a new path. The Kurds and some Sunni forces would presumably be enthusiastic about a federalist approach that is realistic and perhaps achievable. No one will embrace a failed policy. If Mr. Obama wants to be able to say that he is not the president that lost Iraq, he has little choice but to take a radically different approach. Time is not on his side.