The stunning military advance into cities in northern and central Iraq by an Al Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—backed by some of Iraq’s Sunni tribal paramilitary forces and a militia tied to remnants of the deposed Baath party—compounds Iraq’s long-running tragedy. For thirty-four years—through the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), the Gulf War (1990–91), the brutal US-led sanctions against Iraq (1990–2003) and the devastation that followed the US invasion in 2003—Iraq’s people have suffered unspeakably. Now the ISIS-led offensive is adding to that suffering. In seizing Falluja, Mosul and a string of other cities, ISIS has left devastation and mass executions in its wake, and it is aggressively provoking a revival of the Sunni-versus-Shiite civil war that left thousands dead between 2005 and 2008.
But American military involvement in the latest eruption in Iraq, reportedly under consideration by President Obama, would be the wrong response to that suffering, morally and strategically. Even if limited to airstrikes, whether from F-16s, cruise missiles or drones, military action by Washington would almost certainly kill civilians, especially since ISIS is concentrated in heavily populated cities. Worse, such action would inflame, not ease, Iraq’s sectarian divisions, allying Washington more closely with Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s monumentally corrupt and sectarian regime and against a seething Sunni population, and would send recruits streaming into ISIS’s camp.
President Obama has hinted that he’ll make any US military support conditional on a change in Maliki’s sectarian style of governance. Since taking office, Maliki has excluded Sunnis from power—dismantling the Sunni tribal militia of the Anbar Awakening, accusing leading Sunni politicians of “terrorism,” creating security and intelligence machinery that reports only to him, and installing pet generals throughout an army so corrupt and incompetent that it simply fled at the start of the ISIS offensive. But if the United States couldn’t persuade Maliki to change his spots when it had some 150,000 troops in-country and advisers in every ministry, it certainly can’t do so long-distance. Despite eight years of blood and treasure lost in the Iraqi quagmire after 2003, the United States has precious little leverage left.
Since the departure of US forces in 2011, Obama has been under attack by hawks, neoconservatives and Bush administration refugees in Washington’s think tanks for ending the war. Their catechism, repeated endlessly, is that Obama left too soon, abandoning Iraq to civil war. Now, after the ISIS offensive, the “Obama lost Iraq” mantra is on a Fox News loop, echoed in The Wall Street Journal and by the likes of John McCain. This narrative gets the whole story wrong. (Not surprising, since this was the same crowd that was so woefully wrong in calling for war in 2003. How many times does the Beltway hawk caucus get to be wrong before the media realize they don’t know what they’re talking about?)
First, of course, the Iraq civil war is the direct result of the Bush administration’s criminal decision in 2003, illegal under international law, to attack a country that was not involved in 9/11, had no weapons of mass destruction and posed no threat to the United States. That invasion and the subsequent occupation destroyed Iraq’s central institutions, including the army, the police and the Baath party. In the fight to fill the resulting power vacuum, Iraqis separated into Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni camps, a trend fostered by US occupation authorities. The countless dead left on the streets of Iraq’s cities, then and now, are on George W. Bush’s head.