Despite all of the hysteria surrounding the advances in northern Iraq of the brutal group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), no crisis exists for U.S. security, and the American people are wise in their skepticism of renewed U.S. military involvement in that country. Even if the gains of the group eventually lead to an even bigger regional conflagration, in which most of the boundaries of the artificial states in the region originally set by the colonial powers are washed away, good riddance. Those boundaries, which divide ethnic and sectarian areas, have led to much conflict in the past and to the rise of leaders using autocratic methods – such as Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein and Nouri al Maliki in Iraq – as the only means to dampen the conflict among restive groups.
As U.S. news commentators tell us that the Syrian civil war – where ethno-sectarian groups similar to those in Iraq, the Shi’a (in Syria, they are called the Alawites), Sunnis, and Kurds, are fighting – has been exported to Iraq, they don’t go back in history far enough. The commentators imply that the Obama administration should have provided more military aid to the moderate Syrian opposition, thus somehow checking the growth of the ISIS and its migration back to Iraq. Yes migration back to Iraq, where it originated as al Qaeda in Iraq in opposition to George W. Bush’s ill-advised U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Americans have a short historical memory, usually to their government’s benefit. For example, people still crow about smashing Hitler’s Third Reich in World War II, forgetting that U.S. government actions helped bring Hitler to power in the first place – for example, the unnecessary U.S. intervention to help France and Britain win World War I, then looking the other way while these powers humiliated the Germans politically and economically, and finally Woodrow Wilson’s demand that Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicate, thus paving the way for Hitler’s rise. Similarly, the U.S. government encouraged and funded Islamist radicalism during the Cold War to combat the Soviet Union in insignificant hellholes in the developing world. Doing so led to the creation of al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks.
A longer memory in this situation leads us back to the foolish U.S. invasion of Iraq, which created al Qaeda in Iraq in opposition. The group then migrated to the civil war in neighboring Syria, where it took strategic assets, such as weapons caches and oil facilities, while astutely avoiding fighting the superior forces of the Syrian government. There, the group also changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It then moved back into Iraq, and its few thousand fighters are marching toward the northern outskirts of Baghdad, a city of more than seven million people. ISIS has much combat experience and has captured heavy weapons given by the United States to the now fleeing Iraqi Army. Yet ISIS seems sophisticated in avoiding fights when it can by seemingly buying off Iraqi Army commanders to get them to order their troops to scram rather than offer resistance. The group’s fighters learned this tactic first hand from the U.S. occupation of Iraq, when American General David Petraeus essentially bribed moderate Sunni tribal leaders to fight them.
Yet the panic in Washington and other Western capitals is misplaced. It’s time for Obama, who has such innate tendencies, to again have an Eisenhower moment, conclude that no crisis exists, and minimize U.S. involvement in this burgeoning mess. Remember that during the U.S. occupation, the United States also faced fierce Shi’ite militias, which are now coming to the defense of Baghdad and the Shi’ite Maliki government. Since Baghdad is half Shi’a and the southern part of Iraq is heavily Shi’a, the Sunni ISIS insurgency, which feeds off the Shi’ite government’s oppression of Sunnis, will not get much traction in those areas.
Thus, the insurgents will probably be stopped in Baghdad and a partition of the country may ensue, as the Kurdish militias in northern Iraq have taken advantage of the chaos to grab the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The Kurds already have an autonomous region and, with the likely Sunni-Shi’ite bloodletting to come, may wisely try to stay out of the fray, as they have done in neighboring Syria.
In 2009, I wrote a book called Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq in which I called for a negotiated partition (soft partition) of Iraq into a confederation of autonomous regions, with a weak central government. The thought was that in an artificial country, such as Iraq, with a history of one ethno-sectarian group commandeering the government and using it to oppress the other groups, a weak central government would make all groups feel more secure and lead to greater stability. I also predicted that if Iraq were not partitioned softly, it would face partition by war (a hard partition). Since the book was written, Syria, with the same groups involved, has already been effectively partitioned by ethno-sectarian conflict.
Senator John McCain and other hawks always want more U.S. intervention in Syria, Iraq, and everywhere else. Yet as they were advocating shipping more U.S. weapons to the moderate opposition in Syria, ISIS was picking up heavy U.S. weapons left behind by the fleeing U.S.-supplied Iraqi Army. In chaotic civil war situations, the nastiest groups always end up with the arms, no matter whom they are given to initially. McCain has also claimed that the United States had initially defeated in Iraq what is now ISIS but that the Obama administration blew that accomplishment by not leaving a residual force in Iraq. In my most recent book, The Failure of Counterinsurgency: Why Hearts and Minds Are Seldom Won, the study of many historical guerrilla campaigns led me to Yogi Berra’s famous conclusion that it "ain’t over till it’s over." As in many other examples of guerrilla warfare, the guerrillas are not beaten until the grievance that is their reason for fighting has been addressed. General Petraeus got the best result he could for the U.S. in Iraq – dampening the insurgency temporarily with bribery until the United States could extract itself – but the insurgency likely will never be extinguished until the Shi’ite oppression of Sunnis is halted. However, calls in the United States for Maliki to be "more inclusive" in his government smack of culturally insensitive and naïve political correctness. In an Iraq with no history or culture of multi-ethno-sectarian democracy, partition is the probably only pragmatic route to stability and prosperity, unless of course a ruthless dictator, such as Saddam, is brought back.
Also, anyone watching American news shows is led to believe that what happens in Iraq and the Middle East region is vital to U.S. security because much oil is produced there. In my 2011 book, No War for Oil: U.S. Dependency and the Middle East, I debunk the myth prevalent among governments that oil is any more strategic than any other commodity or product. Thus it is cheaper to just buy the oil rather than create expensive military forces to fight for it and prevent a cut off of supplies that will probably never occur.
Finally, won’t ISIS use any territory acquired as a base to launch terrorist attacks on the United States? This outcome will probably happen only if the United States actively aids the Iraqi government by providing it with military advisors or more equipment (risky, given what happened to the last equipment given) or directly attacks ISIS with air strikes. Yet the group seems to be so preoccupied with setting up a Sunni state in the Middle East that it has been reluctant to fight even the Syrian government. So further U.S. intervention will probably just increase instability by making the Shi’ite Iraqi government unwilling to accept a more stable partition of the region and lead to blowback terrorist attacks on the United States. Therefore, United States should resist getting involved again militarily in the Iraqi quagmire.