Iraq is an area, not a nation. History and geography condemn it to be without the sort of nationalism that arises from a common ethnicity or religion that binds a country together for longer than any strongman can rule with an iron fist.
A Washington Post article last week said that the collapse of the Iraqi army “marked a stark failure for the U.S. military that trained it and for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, which has struggled to address leadership and morale problems that now threaten the force’s ability to defend the country.” That sort of faculty lounge-level reasoning overlooks the fact that no matter how well an army is trained, its soldiers have to be willing to fight for something. And fighting for the Maliki regime, which stands for its constituency — the Shiites of Iraq — and for its Iranian allies is something that tens of thousands of Iraqi military and police forces have chosen not to do.
Seven or eight years ago, I appeared on Alhurra, the State Department-sponsored television network that broadcasts to the Middle East in Arabic. I debated a member of Iraq’s parliament on the point of Iraq’s future and predicted that Iraq would split apart into religious-ethnic principalities when American forces left. He scoffed, saying “As long as the sky is blue and the grass is green, there will be an Iraq.” Apparently not.
The revived al-Qaida in Iraq — ISIS, as they call themselves now, the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” — have captured the city of Mosul and are apparently on their way to Baghdad. According to some reports, they may have been stopped by pro-Shiite militias that answered a call to jihad last week by Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. (Sistani, we should recall, refused to meet with American commanders in Iraq for the entire time we occupied Iraq.)
The breaking apart of Iraq into three pseudo-states is, predictably, in the following form. Iraq is bordered — clockwise — by Syria in the northwest, Turkey in the north, Iran in the east and Saudi Arabia in the south. In northwestern Iraq, and to Iraq’s center in Baghdad, is the area dominated now by ISIS forces. It encompasses more than what we used to call the “Sunni triangle,” where much of the bloodiest fighting took place in the years following the 2003 invasion. Bordering Turkey in the northeast is Kurdish territory where a large part of Iraq’s oil reserves lie. Southeastern Iraq is Shiite territory, Maliki’s government closely allied with — in fact, a puppet of — Iran.
To the south, the Saudis must be in a state of near panic. They see that Iran is establishing a satellite state in Syria, through its terrorist ally, Bashar Assad. Assad’s government is Alawite, a Shiite sect more like Iranian Shia than not. Iran is busy doing the same in Iraq. It will continue to help Maliki, sending arms, funds, and troops to his aid. Neither will Maliki’s government fall nor will it be able to retake and dominate the rest of Iraq.
Having said that he wouldn’t send troops back into Iraq, President Obama has ordered a nuclear carrier to the area. He’s apparently considering air strikes, but that would be almost as bad an idea as another military incursion. Helping Maliki would be the same as helping Iran. And what would he do — given his new “leave no troops behind” motto — if an American pilot were shot down and captured by ISIS or the Maliki forces? He would probably empty Gitmo in one big trade.
Our Potemkin President said on Wednesday, “The world is less violent than it has ever been. It is healthier than it has ever been. It is more tolerant than it has ever been. It is better fed then it’s ever been. It is more educated than it’s ever been.” There’s no need to unpack that bizarre statement. The events in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, the South China Sea, North Korea, Sudan, Somalia and more other places than I care to list speak for themselves.
The fact is that there is no course of American action that will stem the tide of history. Our experiment in nation-building failed at the cost of more than 4,000 American lives in Iraq. We are at the same point in policy regarding Iraq that we have been in for months regarding Syria. There are no good guys in this fight. The ISIS forces are terrorists, the Maliki forces are essentially interchangeable with those of Iran, the principal terrorist nation, and the Kurds will have to take care of themselves, which is a major challenge, given the hostility of Turkey which regards — with good reason — the PKK Kurdish forces as terrorists.
The Saudis — having broken off strategic cooperation with us — must be considering their few options. They are heavily engaged against the Assad forces in Syria, and the fact that they have been arming and funding the anti-Assad rebels may well be the maximum effort of which they are capable. But now they have the Iraqi breakup on their northern border. They are opposing Iran in Syria and — like us — have no good options in Iraq because the Sunni forces there — which are a current incarnation of al-Qaida in Iraq — are as much their enemy as is Iran. And the greatest fear the Saudis have is that Iran will stir up the Shiite majority in their eastern provinces to revolt, threatening their major oil exporting facilities.
The lasting effect of Iraq’s breakup will be prolonged war in that former nation and beyond. Iran will continue to back Maliki’s Shiite government with arms, funds, and troops. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — its most effective terrorist force, which has a profound level of influence in the Iranian government — is already in Syria in considerable numbers. The Revolutionary Guards are also in Iraq, in an unknown number, aiding Maliki’s forces. According to one news report, as many as ten thousand IRGC troops could soon be in Iraq.
The ISIS/al-Qaida force in Iraq is obviously well funded, armed, and trained. Its gains may have been halted short of Baghdad, but there is no prospect of its being defeated. The Saudis’ split personality — they remain a primary source of al-Qaida funding though the group is an avowed enemy of the royal family — will ensure that ISIS will not fade away.
And in the north, it is only a matter of time — probably a very short time — before the Turks decide that the Kurds are too great a danger to them and engage in military action intended to contain or destroy the independent Kurdish principality.
There is no reason to rejoice or to be depressed by the events in Iraq. Eight years ago in this page I wrote, “The nascent Iraqi democracy is neither the center of gravity in this war nor a factor determinative of victory or defeat. Iraq is but one key campaign in a larger war and if it becomes a democracy that is a collateral accomplishment, nothing more.” What was true then is true today.
As I wrote then, we — as conservatives — have a clear goal in this war, and neither Bush nor Obama has pursued it. “We mean to win this war by destroying the regimes that provide terrorists with weapons, funds, people, and sanctuary. We mean to defeat the radical Islamist ideology (for that is what it is, not a religion) as we defeated the Soviet communist ideology.”
As I have written many times before and since that 2006 article, nation-building is the greatest mistake we have made since the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. The generals warned us that our supposed gains in Iraq and Afghanistan were “fragile and reversible.” They lie broken in Iraq, and reversed. They will be so in Afghanistan soon after we leave. The terrorist nations’ war against us goes on around the world, and only the enemy is fighting it.