WASHINGTON — It’s stunning that, as we witness the spectacle of a crumbling Iraq and wonder what to do about it, the media turn for wisdom to the junkyard oracles who helped spawn the mess to begin with.
Bill Kristol, Paul Wolfowitz, Paul Bremer — no one should care a whit what they think, they’ve been so consistently wrong about everything. (As the first U.S. proconsul in post-Saddam Iraq, Bremer issued two directives — abolishing the Iraqi army and ousting all Baathists from government jobs — that had the effect of fueling the Sunni insurgency, prolonging the war, and siring the jihadist movement that’s causing trouble today.) Yet there they are, granted airtime not on Fox News but the three major networks, spouting advice to President Barack Obama on how to fix things.
In Monday’s New York Times, Jason Horowitz has a jaw-droppingly fawning profile of historian Robert Kagan, author of a long essay in the New Republic that criticizes Obama for abandoning what he sees as America’s mission to spread democracy around the world. Horowitz suggests that the crisis in Iraq vindicates Kagan’s critique. Alternative views are barely acknowledged. Incisive reviews of Kagan’s New Republic piece, by serious foreign-policy analysts, go unmentioned. Nor does the article (and this is an article in the news section of the paper) recite Kagan’s record as a front-line cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq (and for the use of military force in nearly every crisis) or his assurances, throughout the war, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Certainly this new crisis in Iraq is serious. It is not in U.S. interests for a well-armed, well-funded jihadist group like the Islamist State of Iraq and and the Levant (ISIS) to fulfill its self-proclaimed destiny, i.e., to create an Islamist state that spans Iraq and Syria. The question is how to stop this from happening and what role, if any, the United States should play in the stopping.
The New York Times’ Roger Cohen, in an opinion piece headlined "Take Mosul Back," concludes, "President Obama should use targeted military force to drive back the fanatics of ISIS," but he doesn’t elaborate. "Targeted military force" — I assume that’s a finessing euphemism for smart bombs and drones. But it’s fantasy to believe that air power alone will "drive back" the ISIS fighters.
Bill Kristol and Frederick Kagan (Robert’s brother) go further. The only way to stop ISIS, they write in the Weekly Standard, is "to send American forces back to Iraq" not merely conducting U.S. air strikes but also accompanying those strikes with special operators, and perhaps regular U.S. military units, on the ground."
Before Kristol and the Kagans wax lyrical on the glories of spreading democracy abroad, they might want to check out the imperatives of democratic rule at home. They’d discover that almost no Americans want to send ground troops back to Iraq. Nobody — no politician, party leader, interest group or military officer — is clamoring for it. They also seem oblivious to the fact that, if U.S. troops were to stomp on Iraq soil once more, their boots would be plastered on the recruitment posters for jihadist fighters worldwide. The campaign might even foment a Sunni-Shiite resistance movement — not quite the unified Iraq we have in mind.
American ground troops would be needed to oust the ISIS forces if we were to take on the problem by ourselves. And that’s the main point: Kristol, the Kagans and neocons generally want the United States to reassume the burdens of maintaining what Robert Kagan calls the "liberal world order" (and what others might call "American dominance" or imperialism).
Kristol and Fred Kagan make the point explicitly. Their solution, they write, "is to act boldly and decisively to help stop ISIS — without empowering Iran." There’s the rub — and the dilemma that Kristol, the Kagans, and all the others would like to evade. The fact is, the United States and Iran have a common interest in keeping Sunni radicals from taking over Iraq. Yes, forming an alliance with Iran to beat back ISIS would leave Iran — which already has huge influence over the Iraqi government — stronger still. So, we have to decide which prospect we dislike less: an Islamist state in Iraq (perhaps joined with one in Syria) or a strengthened expansionary Iran.
This business of bad choices is nothing new. The most instructive precedent in recent times is the decision by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to team up with Joseph Stalin for the sake of defeating Adolf Hitler. One outcome of this grand alliance was that, at the end of World War II, the Soviet Union controlled all of Eastern Europe. But the alternative would have been for Nazi Germany to control all of Europe, east and west, and perhaps eventually more.
Iraq is not Europe, ISIS is not the Nazis, Obama is not Roosevelt, Hassan Rouhani is not Churchill. In other words, the analogy is far from perfect. But the point is the same: Sometimes nations have to form alliances with unpleasant nations to prevent the victory of something worse.
As it happens, U.S. and Iranian diplomats are meeting this week as part of the ongoing negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. It’s a good bet that there will be some kind of discussion, perhaps in a side room, on the possibility of joint action in Iraq. If an agreement can be struck, it should be. Even Sen. Lindsey Graham advocates for working with Iran to save Iraq. (Now that Graham has staved off his primary challengers, maybe he’ll lay off his more absurd attacks on Obama, especially his obsession with Benghazi.)
Iran isn’t the only possible ally here. Turkey, on Iraq’s northern border, has a deep interest in staving off an ISIS triumph. During their rampage through Mosul, ISIS fighters sacked Turkey’s embassy and kidnapped Turkish diplomats; in other words, they attacked Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s government is likely revving up to do something. Nor can the rise of ISIS be pleasing to the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Egypt — all Sunnis but leery of the ISIS brand of Sunni.
However, just because nations have common interests doesn’t mean they’ll automatically take common action. This is where the United States comes in. Like it or not, we are the only power that can coordinate this action. This is what shuttle diplomacy is for. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel should get on their planes right away.
More critically, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has to reach out to moderate Sunni politicians (while they still exist) — which is to say, he has to make good on promises, which he’s made for years, to form a more inclusive government. His systematic exclusion, even persecution, of Sunnis has made them ripe targets for subversion, and it’s significant that the cities overrun by ISIS - Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar — are Sunni strongholds. At this point, Maliki has little authority to bring together Sunni and Shiite representatives. However, if anti-ISIS Iraqis saw an international coalition coming to their aid, they might be emboldened, or at least less fearful, to act.
None of this means that the United States should send troops or even launch airstrikes. First, realistically, this isn’t going to happen. Second, it shouldn’t happen. But we can provide other assets, especially intelligence and reconnaissance. Drones are the most obvious tools, but there’s also the tracking of insurgents’ cellphones and the interception of their emails. (These played a big role, bigger than publicly acknowledged, during the "surge" of 2007 and 2008.)
It’s a good thing that Obama stays famously cool under pressure. The incessant chants from his critics to "do something" clearly annoy, even exasperate him, but so far they haven’t pushed him into action without thinking through the interests that compel (or argue against) it and the consequences that might follow. He’s defined the "Obama doctrine," in private conversations, as "Don’t do dumb (expletive)." And, looking at the record of many presidents, that’s harder than it might seem.
In the new Iraq crisis, he might not have to do much. The Grand Ayatollah Sistani has called on all Shiites to come to the aid of the Iraqi nation. Iran has reportedly mobilized Quds special forces. ISIS has been halted in its drive to Baghdad. And I wonder how many troops ISIS has left behind to hold the towns they laid waste. Hoisting a black flag on the pole at city hall isn’t the same as conquering the city. U.S. commanders learned that during their dash through Iraq; they’d "liberate" a city, leave, then the insurgents would come back. This pattern can work both ways.
Still, Obama has to do something that’s limited, focused but possibly effective. The opportunities are there, with Iran, Turkey and other nations in the region to do something smart.
Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and is the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.