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The dam is breaking. Islamic militants intent on establishing a fundamentalist Sunni government incorporating large swaths of Syria and Iraq – the core of the ancient Islamic empire – are rapidly filling the void created by the Obama administration’s policy to cease being the world’s policeman. Republicans complain that Obama passed on the chance to support secular opposition to Assad in Syria, allowing the radicals to recruit and develop a robust fighting capability which has now crossed over into Iraq, and that he missed the opportunity to leave a small residual force in Baghdad to train the Iraqi army and coax the Shiite government toward inclusion of the Sunni minority. Democrats claim that it is Bush’s fault.
Whatever, the ship is sinking. Despite Susan Rice’s claim that our Iraq policies have been effective and “The United States has been fast to provide necessary support for the people and government of Iraq,” even the New York Times recognizes that the rapid capture of Mosul and Tikrit by the advancing army of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the capture of Turkish diplomats in Mosul, the month-ignored request for American air support, and the movement of hundreds of thousands of refugees takes “ending the Iraq War” off of the list of Obama’s signature achievements.
It is perhaps time to take a step back and recognize the realities of the Islamic world. What would Henry Kissinger see and do?
1. Country boundaries and governments are artificial creations of western governments in the mid-20th Century. As happened with the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, or the Indian subcontinent in the 1940s there needs to be a recognition of the longstanding ethnic and religious alignment of the people of the region. In Iraq, the Sunnis under Hussein and the Shiites under Maliki have rejected an inclusive government. The Kurds just want to be left alone. Iraq is three nations; each should have its own state.
2. The historically dominant players in the region – large nations with common religion, language, culture, and a self-identity – are Turkey (Sunni), Egypt (Sunni), and Iran (Shia). We should recognize our interest in aligning with these three to contain the radicalized Sunnis in Syria and Iraq. This requires some unpalatable compromises – a totalitarian military regime in Egypt – but there are also opportunities such as a nuclear agreement with Iran.
3. In our concern about al Queda safe-havens in Afghanistan we are fighting the last war. If we are worried about camps where radicals can be trained and organized to attack the United States, they can be in Yemen, or the Libyan desert, or Nigeria, or within a radical-controlled area of Syria and Iraq. Whatever the purpose of the Afghan War, this is not it.
4. Our self-interest lies in protecting Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf states. The Syria-Iraq disease cannot be allowed to spread to the south.
5. Our behavior in the Islamic World (everywhere for that matter) must stop being driven by White House amateurs focused on domestic politics. We cannot trade unrepentant Taliban leaders for deserters and expect that to be the last that we will see of hostages or that we will gain the respect of our adversaries. We must help defend the Pakistani government – and their nuclear weapons – from the Taliban. We must understand how to help our smaller friends in Jordan, Lebanon, and Israel – whether or not we like some of the compromises that they need to make.
It takes a dose of optimism to believe that after five plus years the Obama foreign policy can begin to be driven by externally-focused pragmatism to contain the growing Islamic militancy. It didn’t come from Hillary – like it or not, it is difficult for a woman to represent American interests in Islamic countries. It won’t come from Susan Rice or Samantha Powers (ditto the above); it doesn’t seem to be coming from John Kerry. As President Obama becomes less and less interested, perhaps there is somebody in the CIA or the Pentagon who can emerge with realistic options. Otherwise, buy energy stocks and contribute to the Red Cross/Red Crescent.
This week’s video is a brief New York Times discussion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).