Only a couple hours after I left D.C.’s White House North Lawn to drive home, a Congressional hearing on the rise of the ISIS began less than three kilometers away from where I was. It is only fair to comment on it here.
1. James Franklin Jeffrey of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy recognizes the threat of ISIS (which I also do), supports the White House’s decision to attempt the overthrow of Maliki (which I oppose), opposes Kurdish independence (which I support), supports greater oil revenue distribution with the Iraqi Arab Sunnis (which I also support), and supports a serious activist anti-ISIS policy (which I support, but Obama doesn’t). He fails to see that it is Turkey that is the Middle East’s rouge state, not Iran, which, aside from its occasional support for Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel and U.S. citizens, is harmless to the U.S.. Money quotes:
Importantly, our allies in the common struggle for stability—Turkey, Israel, and the Sunni Arab states— see Iran as at least an equal threat to their survival as Al Qaeda, and we must respect that to gain their essential cooperation.
As we’ve experienced, from Al Qaeda before 9/11 to Iraq since 2011, problems in the region absent decisive, heads up engagement by the US will keep getting worse to the point when, very late, and at great cost, the US will be compelled to act at far greater cost and risk than if acting earlier.
2. The retired General Jack Keane of the neocon (and very informative) Institute for the Study of War gives an occasionally flawed, but generally correct, informative, and commendable testimony. His is the testimony at this hearing closest to my own views. It is the only one of the four testimonies to not throw Maliki under the bus. Unfortunately, this testimony contains blatant falsehoods: Syrian military-ISIS conflict is not uncommon (though it is true that the Assad regime has helped Syrian militant Islamist fundamentalists) and the FSA was definitely not “the only force in Syria that fought ISIL” (Kurds? Nusra? Syrian Army?). Keane also, sadly, fails to mention the crucial role of Turkey. Money quotes:
U.S. intelligence agencies have been quite aware of this threat, this is the failure of policy makers who ignored it.
AQI was defeated in Iraq by 2009, an admission they made repeatedly in message traffic, calling off the flow of the foreign fighters.
Key policy decisions in 2009 to disengage from Iraq politically and to no longer help shape Iraq’s political future was disastrous. Particularly in light of previous success in other post conflicts; Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Bosnia Herzegovina.
Russia desires to be a key player in the Middle East and influence other actions as they are doing successfully in Syria and Iran desires Iraq to be a client state similar to Syria. Maliki has brought them in as significant international supporters to assist with operations against ISIL which only enhances Maliki’s political position due to the lack of tangible support by the US.
3. Doug Bandow of the Friedman/Koch libertarian Cato Institute makes an unconvincing case for abstinence. He comes closest to my views while the U.S. occupation of Iraq, which I then saw as stupidity on a massive scale and today accept as necessary to clean up the mess the U.S. left behind after its reckless toppling of Saddam, was still going on. He correctly points out that the ISIS has plenty of problems, is more committed to expanding in the Fertile Crescent than striking the U.S., and cannot conquer most of Iraq’s population. However, the ISIS can easily triumph over its Baathist allies if they rebel, as it already has done in Syria. Bandow also points out that U.S. intervention is a band-aid over a much larger Iraqi credibility problem. However, if the Iraqi government is unable to become credible, there’s always the well-funded Kurdish Regional Government the U.S. can rely on to defeat the ISIS in northern Iraq. Bandow’s statement that “Today ISIL is too big to simply decapitate.” raises the prospect of a civil war in the Islamic State, which, while terrible to contemplate, is quite plausible. Unfortunately, Bandow wrongly throws Maliki under the bus. He fails to understand the consequences of his two statements: “In Syria the ISIL radicals face simultaneous military challenges from the government, moderate opposition forces, and even slightly less extreme jihadists, as well as the political task of establishing a functioning government in areas under its control.” and “Turkey is a Muslim nation with significant military capabilities which borders both Iraq and Syria.”. It is Erdogan, not Maliki, who is the Middle Eastern leader most responsible for the rise of ISIS. Fortunately, Bandow makes up for his mistake by pointing out the dubious prospects for a replacement for Maliki. He also correctly points out that the Middle East is in flux and that partition should not be off the table. Bandow is only partly correct in his objection to funding Syria’s rebels: the risk is that weapons may fall into the hands of Nusra, but supporting more secular humanist forces in Syria decreases Nusra’s advantage. Likewise, weapons falling into the hands of the enemy is an inevitable risk in any violent conflict. Bandow’s statement regarding Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon “However, Washington should be burning the diplomatic wires to encourage them to take action according to their interests and abilities. The U.S. has enough challenges in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world to jump into another conflict.” is 180 degrees from the truth. It would be foolish for these states to fight the ISIS, as all of them are smaller in territory than the ISIS and have no access to the Turkish border. The U.S., however, has enough pressure to force Turkey to allow the U.S. to conduct coercive operations against the ISIS from Turkish territory. If anything, Bandow is too supportive of Iran, though he does correctly state that “the Obama administration should quietly ensure that any U.S. military involvement does not clash with actions taken by Tehran”. Though Bandow does state that “ISIL has grown most obviously out of past U.S. policy mistakes”, he fails to state that it had shrunk during and after the late 2007 surge out of past U.S. policy successes. Money quotes:
To the extent that the organization establishes effective control over a territory, which remains problematic, it will have less incentive to strike the U.S., since doing so would, as with the Taliban in Afghanistan, risk its geopolitical gains. The group continues to pose a serious challenge, and one which could morph into something different and more menacing over time. But today Washington has an opportunity for a considered, restrained, and measured response.
Iraq’s most serious problem today is that the state lacks credibility and will, and the military lacks leadership and commitment. These America cannot provide.
Moreover, appearing to reflexively back Baghdad risks foreclosing potential solutions, including some form of federalism or even partition. The Iraqi Humpty Dumpty has fallen off of the wall. The Kurds are moving toward a vote over independence. The willingness of mainstream Sunnis to back ISIL demonstrates the depth of their alienation from Baghdad. The collapse of the Iraqi military suggests that the national government is unlikely to quickly reassert its authority. The U.S. and other interested parties, including Jordan, Israel, Turkey, and Iran should be talking informally and quietly about options to defuse the potential sectarian explosion. While Washington could help advance such an approach, no plan will succeed without support of regional states and local peoples. All options should be in play.
Washington’s reluctance to countenance Tehran’s involvement in Iraq is understandable but irrelevant. Hussein’s loss always was going to be Iran’s gain, the Bush administration’s intentions notwithstanding. There is nothing Washington can do to change that today. The more America is willing to tie itself to the Maliki government the less the latter might need to rely on Iran, but the impact likely would be marginal. The overwhelming religious, cultural, personal, economic, and geopolitical ties would remain. The U.S. always will be a distant and alien power.
America’s role should remain advisory, at most, but it would be best to ensure no inadvertent complications. The crisis in Iraq has placed a greater premium on improving relations with Iran—and especially resolving the nuclear issue, if possible.
4. Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy comes closest to Obama’s views, but refuses to mention the crucial role of Turkey (if ISIS is equivalent to Viet Minh, Turkey is equivalent to North Vietnam and the U.S. is equivalent to the U.S.S.R.). He points out that direct U.S. intervention in Iraq would simply lead to more ISIS recruitment, but I say that this is a good thing! The more ISIS jihadis killed this time, the fewer the Iraqi government has to kill later. His testimony is mostly perceptive and quite frank. He does understand that “The road to liberating Iraq passes through Syria.”. He supports Obama’s half-billion dollar package to aid Syrian rebels, which I dismiss as duplicitous, and way too much and too late. Money quotes:
Thus, the U.S. should allow Prime Minister Maliki to twist in the wind as long as he is not willing to work to achieve a cross-sectarian coalition government, while quietly pushing for an alternative to him who would be willing to work on that basis. It should, however, hold out the prospect of expedited weapons deliveries, and even U.S. drone and air strikes against IS positions in Sunni-only areas in the north as an incentive.
And thanks to its rapid success, IS was transformed overnight from perhaps the richest terrorist group in the world, to one of the poorest (de facto) states in the world.
IS’s defeat of the ISF was also a major setback for Iran. And IS’s rise threatens the so-called ‘axis of resistance,’ from the Levant to Iran, as IS is active in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and its recent victories might inspire violent Salafists already active in Iran.11 This is yet another reason, barring any major change in policy by Baghdad, not to move too quickly to lavish military support on the Iraqi government, as it is worth letting Tehran consider how its own policies have contributed to the current state of affairs there.
In conclusion: Michael Eisenstadt has spoken. The ISIS is staying. Thousands of antiquities in its territory are doomed to be either sold or destroyed.