What Should We Do in Iraq?

What should we do in Iraq? I’ve already given my opinion. I think we need to identify our interests, quantify them, assess our abilities, and take whatever action consistent with our abilities will actually advance our interests.

I don’t think that President Obama’s most recent sally, sending advisors, is anything but a face-saving measure. It doesn’t really interest me. Complaining that Maliki must go strikes me as the stuff of campus radicals, operating under the theory that anything must be better than the status quo. That’s fine for a kid of 18 but not nearly so in fifty year old men and women who should recognize just how much worse things could actually become.

If we have no interests and there’s nothing we should or can do, I think we should maintain a low profile, i.e. STFU.

As it is I think we’re advancing tactics without identifying objectives, rarely a prudent move.

I’m not much interested in debating about “who shot John?” Our foreign policy has been a hash since September 2001. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

So, what should we do in Iraq?

75 comments… add one
  • CStanley

    Can you be more specific about your opinion, regarding our interests? What are the US interests, in your view?

  • The gentleman host must feel strongly. He rarely uses even veiled profanity. My inner church lady gasped.

  • CStanley

    I certainly agree that the framework Dave provides is appropriate. If I may though jump ahead, I assume we are going to define some US interest in the situation (for my part, I guess I’d say our interests are stability and prevention of a safe haven for a jihadist organization.)

    Part two of the discussion, what can we do and what ought we do….I would like to see more discussion about pressuring the “moderate” Sunni powers to act in the interest of stability (at least stop acting in ways that destabilize) and pressuring our European allies to step up (they should be reminded that they are going to be facing a lot of hardened jihadists returning home in a couple of years.)

    Also ripe for discussion- what to do about refugees. Jordan is in danger of buckling under the pressure. If the UN is unable to coordinate a solution to this part of the crisis, it is time to dissolve it.

  • michael reynolds

    The Turks are putting out the word that the time has come to talk partition. This means that they’ve accepted the idea of a free Kurdish state.

    The Iranians want Maliki – or Shiite equivalent – to maintain control of at least the Shiite south and Baghdad. As it happens, we can help, and the Iranians have a way they can repay us.

    So, I think our job is to:

    1) Using the absolute minimum force effect the absolute minimum stabilization, in common cause with Iran.

    2) Bring Turkey, Maliki, Iran, the Sunni tribes we’ve dealt with in the past, and even previous Baathists together to discuss partition. But not until the Kurds have taken what they feel they need and the Shiites have consolidated their lines.

    3) It’s important that ISIS be stopped before partition negotiations. They’ll want more, we want them to have less. They’ll want revenue sharing on oil, I think we should not go down that path but cede them just enough oil to provide a minimal income. They can mooch of the Saudis like everyone else.

    4) Partition should be made part of a larger deal between Iran and the US and its allies. Maybe we could think in terms of demilitarizing the Gulf with an international force managing the piracy problem. Make the nuclear deal we seem to be having some success with.

    5) In a perfect world where our Congress wasn’t more pro-Likud than the Knesset we could work a deal with Iran to reduce their support of Hezbollah as we reduced a part of our support for Israel. But that’s not likely given Congress.

  • France and Russia were strong traders with Iraq. Are they still? What are their opinions about the current situation? Surely they could bring some pressure to bear.

  • While I recognize the emotional need to whack somebody and the political need to appear to be doing something after 9/11, I think that more of our energies should be turned inwards than outward s. What were the critical success factors behind the attack?

    I think they had nothing to do with Iraq and precious little to do with Afghanistan. Do we really have an interest in terrorist bases not being established or in their not being used against us?

  • michael reynolds

    Janis:

    Everybody brought pressure on Maliki to get along with the Sunnis. Even the Iranians told him to reach out.

  • michael reynolds

    Dave:

    We can’t take a purely internal defense approach to terrorism. If we go into a defensive crouch we surrender the initiative to potential enemies. That’s warfare 101: do not surrender the initiative. No defensive position has ever held absent the ability to disrupt or retaliate. From the Krak des Chevaliers to the Maginot Line.

  • Michael:

    I think there are some complicating factors. For one thing I think any Shi’ite leader will do much as Maliki has. For another if the Iraqis don’t want partition I’m not sure that’s an alternative.

  • If we’re not prepared to maintain permanent bases, we’re already committed to a “defensive crouch”. I don’t think that exposing your throat to the enemy is prudent

  • CStanley

    Does the report today that ISIS has taken control of a chemical weapon stash change your calculus at all, Dave?

    Maybe it would help my understanding if I knew what, if anything, you feel should have been done about the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11. To me it looks like ISIS is the Taliban on steroids…better organized, better financed, better armed. Do we not need to contain that, in order to even maintain a defensible position?

  • PD Shaw

    CStanley: “for my part, I guess I’d say our interests are stability and prevention of a safe haven for a jihadist organization.”

    I agree.

  • ...

    CStanley, I think you’ve got it a little backwards with regards to the Taliban and ISIS. The Taliban were and are a long running organization. ISIS is the Flavor of the Month in Jihadi Extremism ™ in the Levant. They’re enjoying great success at the moment, but they’re not about to kick a superpower out of their country. (The superpower having already left.) The Taliban, on the other hand, are dictating terms to the President of the United States of America and he is powerless to even discuss them, by the admission of his own people.

  • PD Shaw

    michael: “The Turks are putting out the word that the time has come to talk partition. This means that they’ve accepted the idea of a free Kurdish state.”

    Has Turkey accepted the idea of allowing almost 25% of its territory to be gifted to the new Kurdist state? I doubt it; they probably would not mind the creation of Kurdish dependency on its border that included the Kirkuk oil fields and Turkey might even be willing to arm that border to keep oil flowing into Turkey. I don’t know why anyone else, including Iraqi Kurds would agree to that.

  • michael reynolds

    PD:

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/06/19/turkey-gives-up-on-unified-iraq.html

    ISTANBUL — With ISIS jihadists reportedly preparing for an attack on the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, there are signs that the Erdogan government in neighboring Turkey is giving up on the survival of Iraq as a unified state.

    Such a move would be a radical policy shift for Turkey, a key U.S. ally and NATO member. Under the Turkish current policy, Ankara has been keen to preserve Iraq’s territorial unity in order to prevent a Kurdish state from being created, because such a development could promote separatist sentiments among Turkey’s own Kurdish minority of about 12 million people.

    But the escalating Sunni-Shia sectarian war in Iraq is forcing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other policymakers in Ankara to review that position, said Veysel Ayhan, director of the Ankara-based think tank International Middle East Peace Research Center (IMPR).

    “The federal state [in Iraq] has not brought stability, so we have to discuss a new system, either a confederation or division,” Ayhan told The Daily Beast. “Sunnis will not accept to live under Shia rule, and Shiites will not live under Sunnis. If Sunni and Shiites do not want to live with the other side, we can’t protect the unity of Iraq.”

    Erdogan drew a similarly bleak picture of the situation on Thursday. Speaking to reporters in Ankara, he said the conflict in Iraq had gone beyond a mere confrontation between the Sunni extremists of ISIS and the army of the Shia-led central government in Baghdad. “It has turned into a real sectarian war,” Erdogan said.

    A Turkish official close to the Prime Minister went further by saying Turkey realised that Iraq was falling apart.

    “It has become clear for us that Iraq has practically become divided into three parts,” Huseyin Celik, spokesman for Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), told Rudaw, an Iraqi Kurdish media network based in Erbil, the capital city of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Celik was referring to Sunni, Shia and Kurdish sectors in the country.

    A Kurdish homeland in situ does not necessarily imply Turkish concessions. These things can be negotiated.

  • PD Shaw

    “The Iranians want Maliki – or Shiite equivalent – to maintain control of at least the Shiite south and Baghdad. ”

    No, I don’t think so. The Iranians want an Iranian-friendly Iraq with Shi’ite leaders. They want unimpeded access to the Shi’ites of Lebanon. We should be wary of Iranian tolerance of chaos in Iraq, because it helps keep oil prices up.

  • michael reynolds

    Dave:

    I think there’s a conflict here:

    For one thing I think any Shi’ite leader will do much as Maliki has. For another if the Iraqis don’t want partition I’m not sure that’s an alternative.

    If any Shiite leader in Baghdad will do as Maliki has done, then desires for a unified Iraq are just vague wishes and not intentions. The only way Iraq stays together is if the Baghdad government creates a degree of fairness and equality.

  • michael reynolds

    PD:

    Well, it’ll be interesting to see, and you may be right, but I suspect the Iranians are pragmatists and accept that partition, with a weak and impoverished Sunni state trapped between Assad and Baghdad, is a reasonable outcome. Give them a Sunni state and the tribes have a shot at reasserting control and evicting ISIS. No Sunni state leaves ISIS in place and no realistic way for Baghdad or Iran to take back the lost land.

  • CStanley

    ISIS is the Flavor of the Month in Jihadi Extremism ™

    That’s not what I’m hearing, icepick, but possibly the strength I’m reading about is well timed opportunism and a healthy dose of propaganda. We’ll have to wait and see if they have staying power.

  • PD Shaw

    @michael, who is negotiating with whom in your scenario?

    And it has to be emphasized, the important cities in Iraq, such as Baghdad and Kirkuk are multi-ethnic. Turkey wants access to the Kirkuk oil fields and that is a disputed location that the Kurds would not be able to negotiate for, and if they could, the Kurds could not keep it without a larger army than a rump Kurdistan could maintain.

  • PD Shaw

    @michael, you seem to be pretty close to advocating a Persian and Ottomon Imperial agreement to partition Iraq into dependencies that would be under their military protection. Not unprecedented, but I think that is why Iraqis have generally support an Iraqi state. They have not wanted to be governed by Persepolis or Constantinople. I think its generally wrong to see Iraq as a balkanized state, as opposed to a borderland.

  • Jimbino

    You ask what’s the best thing to do about Iraq?

    Too bad we can’t get back Saddam Hussein and the regional stability his regime provided.

    We need to stop interfering and start dealing with the 1933 German-type dictatorship developing in this country. Don’t forget that Hitler was democratically elected.

  • PD Shaw

    BTW/ This is the Ralph Peters map of how to fix the borders in the Middle East. It shows how much of Kurdistan is in Turkey, let alone Iraq, Syria and Iran. He concedes the need for Baghdad to be its own city-state (not divisible), and extends the Southern Shi’ domain into Saudi Arabia and Iran where shi’ite Arabs are treated as second class citizens currently.

  • michael reynolds

    I don’t think a need exists at this time to redraw all of Sykes-Picot plus all the previous colonial borders. But I think what has become clear is that Iraq as a single state can be governed by either a tolerant, multi-party democracy with a large degree of local autonomy, or by another Saddam. So far we’ve tried both. Neither really worked. Despite the polls, I don’t think Iraqis are culturally prepared for a unified Iraq. Which, by the way, already ceased to exist once the Iraqi Kurds became effectively independent.

    The Kurds are out, which leaves just Sunni and Shia, and when have they gotten along? Basically never.

    If the Turks are ready to accept a partition, I don’t see why we should oppose it. As you suggest, the question is how Iran sees all this. I’m hazarding a guess that they will essentially accept partition as the least injurious to their long-term goals. It would leave the Assad regime in power and it would all a purely Shiite state in southern Iraq that would be entirely under Iran’s thumb.

  • If any Shiite leader in Baghdad will do as Maliki has done, then desires for a unified Iraq are just vague wishes and not intentions.

    Nope. It says that desire for a strong central Iraqi government is a vain hope. There need not be a barrier to a federal system, for example.

    All of this goes back to what I consider one of the basic flaws of our post-invasion strategy. Rather than let the Iraqis write their own constitution we should have dictated one for them. Key elements: rule of law, protection of minorities, federal system, sharing of oil revenues. The Iraqis have no basis or experience for a liberal democratic system but they have plenty of experience with a spoils system.

  • TastyBits

    The solution to the problem caused by outsiders carving up the place is to have outsiders carve up the place. Oh wait, this time the outsiders mean well, and they have no other agenda except than the well being of the local people. Any benefits to the outsiders would be purely coincidental.

  • michael reynolds

    Rather than let the Iraqis write their own constitution we should have dictated one for them.

    Preaching to the choir there. I said it at the time.

    But we’d also have had to keep the boot on their necks for 20 years and use the time to build democratic institutions – courts, universities, unions. That ship sailed in 2003.

  • ...

    CStanley, what I’ve read (now a week out of date, and probably very inaccurate to begin with) indicates that ISIS itself has about 20,000 troops. That’s nor a lot for the area they control.

    I believe that they’ve definitely tapped into (at least) Iraqi Sunni dissatisfaction and are capitalizing on that.

    What I mean by the flavor of the month comment is that in unstable & violent political environments extremists have an edge for rising to power suddenly. Maintaining that power is a separate issue, however, and extremists often fail at that task. See Robespierre during the French Revolution, for example – supreme power for about a year followed by a visit to Madame Guillotine. I doubt ISIS will succeed for more than a year or so even if they don’t lose any territory. That’s just playing the odds.

    And who comes after? Haven’t the foggiest.

  • michael reynolds

    This isn’t just ISIS. This is the Sunni tribes we bought off and Maliki then alienated, and it’s leftover Baathists. Fun for all! ISIS won’t necessarily be running a new Sunni state, that’ll probably end up being the tribal leaders and some old dudes in uniforms and Saddam mustaches. ISIS a couple of thousand guys. Motivated, battle-hardened, all that, but not ten feet tall.

  • Using my handy bookmark, I dragged up this piece from Pravda:

    http://english.pravda.ru/world/ussr/17-06-2014/127815-america_terrorist_sponsor-0/

    Looks to me like this paper, at least, is reveling in the US bumbling about in the ME and Asia. Putin is ex-KGB. He must be sniggering. “We know how to handle dissidents. Tvoye zdorovye!”

  • That’s what I’m picking up about ISIS, too, Michael.

  • jan

    Peggy Noonan offers no solutions in her WSJ opinion piece, What America Thinks About Iraq. Instead, she speculates what the American people think about the wars — the various phases involving the invasion, American implementation and surge, withdrawal, and now the crumbling of this ME region. There is a sense of futile acceptance, though, in her writing, laced with what she calls “hard-eyed” realization of now seeing the firmly entrenched idiosyncrasies and cultural patterns gripping this area of the world.

    In the long term, the U.S. experience in Iraq will probably contribute to the resentment, the sheer ungodly distance and lack of trust and faith between the people who are governed in America and those who govern them, between the continent and the city called Washington. Also between the people and the two great political parties, both of which blundered.

    Pundits and pollsters have been talking about a quickening of the populist spirit, and the possibility of a populist rise, for at least a quarter-century. But they’re doing it more often now.

    There is a growing disconnect between the American people and their government, a freshened resentment. We are not only talking about Iraq when we talk about Iraq, we are also talking about ourselves. We are not only talking about the past, we are talking about the future.

    IMHO, any intervention into someone else’s business is best done early, with a clear mission in mind, and a well researched strategy ready to go. I think this country pretty much came up short on most phases of this foreign escapade. The invasion was brief and fairly bloodless on the U.S. side. And the 2007 surge seemed to quell some of the violence, bringing temporary stability to the region. However, all the rest, implementation, withdrawal, and now the awkward response to renewed havoc in Iraq has been fumbled — big time.

    Consequently, I am more and more inclined to believe we should be minimally involved, and let the sectarian interests be addressed and solved by the people most effected by the outcome — the Iraqis.

  • BTW, let me give an example of what I mean by “looking inwards”. Have you thought about our visa policy? How it’s managed both before and after being issued? I think flaws in our visa policy that still haven’t been corrected were one of the critical success factors behind the attacks on 9/11.

    Again, consider the critical success factors.

  • ...

    Have you thought about our visa policy? How it’s managed both before and after being issued? I think flaws in our visa policy that still haven’t been corrected were one of the critical success factors behind the attacks on 9/11.

    We’re too busy feeling up grandmas and babies at airports to worry about that.

    Plus if someone did do something to correct our VISA policies, some special interest group would claim discrimination.

  • Cstanley

    It makes sense to focus on visas, but I have no confidence that we can achieve much good in that are a either. First of all, our government is apparently being run with a couple of Compaq desktops and a stack of floppy disks. Second, it seems like people who are here legally can blow stuff up before their visas expire. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t keep better tab on people, but it doesn’t seem to solve the problem either.

  • Speaking of looking inwards, I just heard John Berman standing in for Jake Tapper on CNN say “If this were a soccer match, the score would be Terrorists 4-1,” regarding the current situation in Iraq.

    How y’all change that? War has been entertainment in the US since the first Gulf War. “Let’s gather round the TV and watch a little ‘Shock and Awe’ tonight.”

  • ...

    First of all, our government is apparently being run with a couple of Compaq desktops and a stack of floppy disks.

    I’m pretty sure you just impugned the honor of Compaq desktops and floppy disks.

  • michael reynolds

    Janis:

    The gentleman host must feel strongly. He rarely uses even veiled profanity. My inner church lady gasped.

    The gentleman host is back in the workplace. I expect all manner of terrible results. We are days away from a Dave Schuler PowerPoint explaining why we’re all being declared supernumeraries and our whining and kvetching is being outsourced to Malaysians who will do it faster and cheaper.

  • You think you’re kidding. Since starting this gig I’ve prepared a half dozen PowerPoint presentations. I hate PowerPoint.

  • They might at least be numerate, which our revered host would surely appreciate.

    I’m looking ahead to College Algebra in July with no little dread. Though I did well in high school algebra — >40 years ago.

  • Off-topic, but a little funny — a sign I saw in a local pub:

    Dear Algebra,

    Stop asking me to find your X. She isn’t coming back.

  • michael reynolds

    Even more off-topic, Dave, you might have already seen: http://www.nature.com/news/pit-of-bones-catches-neanderthal-evolution-in-the-act-1.15430

    The emergence of Neanderthals is just as mysterious as their disappearance about 30,000 years ago. A study of skulls from a possible burial pit in northern Spain offers a glimpse into the early evolution of the big-bodied hunter-gatherers, who dominated Europe long before modern humans arrived there. The fossils seem to confirm that their distinctive facial features evolved stepwise.

  • ...

    Iraq is so 2003. If we want to figure out what to do about failed states, I suggest we think about what’s happening in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. And Washington DC, with special emphasis on the Capitol Building and the White House, neither of which seems either capable or willing to do their fucking jobs.

  • Going back to CNN, they’re speaking of technical proficiency of ISIS in social media, with a message in English equivalent to “A cure for depression is jihad.”

    Add a few potential school shooters and shake.

    I think, all in all, that’s falling in with the Lindsay Graham line : “These terrorists are an existential threat to America.” More or less.

    I’m particularly fond of “Our women and children are in danger from these terrorists,” which I’ve read recently.

    Take all these elements with a dram of the DC shooters from a while back and you’ve got a cocktail called “The darkies are going to rise.”

    And I saw Quaneisha, a young (but not so young — late 20’s early, 30’s) attentive, well-kept, well-spoken black woman at the register at Rite-Aid drugstore yesterday, and at the Brookshire’s grocery register today. I count two jobs, so far.

    European-bred people, in general, are not crazy about dark-skinned people. The early 20th century British and European detective novels I’ve been reading refer to Arabs, Africans, and Indians alike as “ni88ers.”

  • CStanley

    I’m pretty sure you just impugned the honor of Compaq desktops and floppy disks.

    Mind you, I didn’t say that technology was being used to its full capability.

  • And forget about the filthy, greedy Jews.

  • Here’s CNN again, “The Sixties”:

    267,000 American soldiers in Vietnam, January 1966, and 18,000 coming next month.

  • Westmoreland: “We will prevail in Vietnam, over the Communist aggressor.”

  • My brother is back in the VA for a few days, for observation after having side effects from bleomycin, part of his chemotherapy protocol for the re-occurence of Hodgkins lymphoma after exposure to Agent Orange in 66-67 in Vietnam. He is 69. His first symptoms of Hodgkins showed up in 2007.

  • I mean, what’s a few hundred advisors? That can’t mean much trouble, can it?

  • Bird Dog

    I don’t see the problem with saying that Maliki should step down. After all, he’s the one primarily responsible for this civil war and it’s extremely unlikely that he’ll bring Sunnis back into the fold.
    I don’t see the point of Obama sending “advisors” to Iraq because that means we are choosing Shiites over Sunnis, and I’m pretty sure this president said that we shouldn’t choose sides in this civil war.
    What should we do? If there’s actionable intelligence on ISIS members, hit ’em, so long as we don’t hit tribal sheikhs and former Awakening members, not that this would do much good.
    The second thing we could do is immediately recognize Kurdistan if or when it declares independence.

  • ...

    Janis Gore wrote: I mean, what’s a few hundred advisors? That can’t mean much trouble, can it?

    You’re noticing again, Janis. You are NOT supposed to notice things these days, as that is crimethink.

    CStanley wrote: Mind you, I didn’t say that technology was being used to its full capability.

    Fair point, and I stand corrected.

  • steve

    We should recognize our interests, but also what it is possible to do. We have an interest in stability. We dont know how to provide stability. I am skeptical that even a plan where we came in and wrote the constitution and imposed courts and universities would have worked. We really dont understand the culture that well. I dont think you provide a functioning democracy as a gift. Would it have had a better chance of working than what we did? Maybe, but I doubt it, but if anything was going to work, it needed to be done immediately.

    What we might be able to do is salvage something of value for us. Let the regional powers of the area work with each other and figure out what they want to do. if they decide to partition, we can be of some aid in the process and, hopefully, get some concessions from Iran. While we are there, we can work on obtaining intel about ISIS in case they are a problem in the future for us. (To the best of my knowledge they are a local group that has taken no actions against the US.)

    Steve

  • ...

    Bird Dog, why did we chose sides in so many other civil wars (partial list: Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Crimea) in the recent past if it isn’t our business?

  • Ben Wolf

    A very good interview with Andrew Bacevich by Bill Moyers:
    http://vimeo.com/98693864

  • jan

    ” I dont think you provide a functioning democracy as a gift. “

    Well said…

    Most of the people in Iraq seem to see and value their sectarian alliances more than their ties of being one big Iraqi family. Here in the U.S. we pretty much do the same thing, except along political/ideological lines, which are getting more distinct, corrosive and polarized all the time.

  • Ben:

    Thanks. I didn’t know there was a billmoyers.com.

  • TastyBits

    @steve

    … I dont think you provide a functioning democracy as a gift. …

    In the US, each generation is provided with the gift of a functioning democracy. In Iraq, it would have taken at least one, but more likely two or three, to establish the functioning part.

    It is like domesticating a tiger. It is going to take a lot of time and energy. You will need to breed many generations to obtain an animal not likely to rip off your face, and if you are not prepared to finish, it is probably best to not start.

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