By: Harry C. Blaney III
The greatest challenge for American diplomacy in Iraq is finding a path that will contain the spread of sectarian warfare between Islam’s two dominant sects (the Sunni and the Shiite) and the intervention of their predominant co-religionist national entities. Already the Shiite state of Iran has offered military and financial support to Nouri al-Maliki and his exclusionary policy towards both the Kurds and the Sunni minority. Now Syria’s government seems to also be in support of Maliki, although still to an uncertain extent. Maliki made gestures towards a more inclusive government on Wednesday with Secretary Kerry, but Iran indicated it wanted America to stay out of Iraq. Thus, the direction of Iraq’s government and future remains in some doubt.
To say the waters are muddy is an understatement and, clearly, the complexities boggle the mind as old foes become allies and vice versa. For America and the West in general, there are again no good options, and our current ones are limited in every direction. Unintended consequences loom everywhere. Diplomacy is trying now to bring some broader unity government to Iraq. At the same time, defeating ISIS gains without some element of military support seems to many to be tying our hands.
The greatest danger for America is if it takes the side of one sect in this Islamic struggle or even being seen to do so. At the same time, though, the idea of a bloody ongoing global religious war and the establishment of an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria run under fanatical Islamic rule that spans from the shores of Lebanon to the heart of Iraq does, as Secretary Kerry has said, pose a long-term vital threat to America and our allies.
The ISIS clearly poses a fundamental threat to the whole of Iraq. As their on-the-ground gains continue the scope for either a diplomatic or decent military solution become more and more questionable. Questionable yes, but probably not impossible, if the contesting powers and sects see beyond a wholesale tragic slaughter.
The question of the day must be how to create solutions to what seems, by all accounts, an already disastrous situation. This solution, we have to remember, must be created with few good tools and a rising upheaval throughout the Arab world and beyond. In this context the question of what to do is without an easy answer, and the ramifications of any action is, without exception, open to many dangers and uncertainties.
Some of the questions that the President, Secretaries of State and Defense, partisan Congress, citizens, and Iraqi leaders need to ponder are:
- How do we deal with Maliki and his corrupt regime to truly help put together at this very late stage reconciliation between the contesting sides in Iraq? But, also, how do we dampen the trend of national proxies and Shia and Sunni countries which, in this volatile landscape, are in danger of being caught up and added to a region-wide chaos?
- For America the question must also be whether (and how) to apply American military assets in such a way that will not not cause even greater bloodshed? Having already sent up 300 military personnel and other assets to Iraq – but having done so with the problematic injunction that Maliki form an inclusive government with the Kurds and Sunni – we still must consider our other options.
- Does America have a constructive strategy for Iraq beyond trying to prevent a massive Sunni-Shiite conflict? Is it willing to commit its diplomatic, economic, and military support to this region? And at what cost and for how long? And, what will the Middle East and global environment look like without peacemaking efforts in a never-ending conflict?
- How far should America commit military assets without “boots on the ground,” to what objective, and for how long. And, how can it avoid “on the ground” blowback? What tools should be “usable” and not, and how should they be coordinated with the Iraqi government/military and with Iran?
- What role will/should Iran, the Gulf States and especially Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, etc. play in this conflict? Will it be destructive and simply exacerbate the division between Sunni and Shiite? What can we do to make it constructive?
- Is the unified state of Iraq already lost? Is a break-up a better option or simply inevitable? What about a very loose federation? Can Maliki stay or must he leave? Would any alternative government be better? Do we need to accept, at this stage, a Maliki government? How far do we want to go to make him leave or promote a successor?
- What other tools of reconciliation, peacemaking, and peacekeeping can America and our allies and friends develop that will break the cycle of hate, raw ideological, religious, and ethnic conflict in the Middle East?
I will not provide here and now my own answers to these questions, which I have addressed a bit in early posts. I do, rather, welcome the comments of others to provide their ideas and answers and proposals.
So far the conversation is starkly divided. There is the sterile stance of some isolationists of “do nothing, let them kill each other” and there is the “neo-con” facile answer and oft-repeated argument of harsh military intervention. This is what got us into so much trouble earlier in Iraq, and the people who now want to go back massively into the bloody battlefield – blind as always to the realities of the landscape and its history – appear simpleminded. Our nation and the region deserve better examination and thought than either of these extremes.
Again we welcome you comments!