One of the schools of thought about Iraq back in the days after the United States invaded was that the nation should be allowed to split into a federation of three largely autonomous regions. Vice President Joseph Biden was a principal proponent of the idea of federation.
The three regions would be the largely Shia south and Baghdad; the largely Sunni region west and north of Baghdad; and the Kurds in the north, who were virtually independent already.
Instead, the Bush administration pursued a policy of unity in the belief that allowing for fragmentation would condemn the nation to a future of division rather than democratic concord. Thus, the United States pushed for elections and the creation of a strong central government that, it was hoped, would enable all three communities to work together. Nouri al-Maliki became prime minister, and at various times, Kurds and Sunnis also held important posts.
It became apparent eventually that al-Maliki knew how to rule only as a Shia strongman. He and fellow Shia persecuted Sunnis, expelling them from the government and prosecuting them. Belief in democracy requires a willingness to accept the legitimacy of all groups within the nation. That was not happening in Iraq.
The rapid advance of the Islamic State, or ISIS, across northern Iraq has been a near death blow to the dream of a unified Iraq. Militants from Syria, in alliance with Sunni elements in Iraq, swept across the country, capturing Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and threatening Kurdistan. The Shia-dominated military crumbled, and eventually al-Maliki was ousted from the government.
The New York Times has reported that the strength and sophistication of ISIS’ military leadership is owed in part to the fact that veterans of Saddam Hussein’s military are now part of ISIS. Thus, we are confronted with a resurgence of Sunni Baath Party elements who had been driven from power by the United States who are now allied with Islamic militants from Syria and Iraq. Thus, we are witnessing the fragmentation of Iraq, carried out be force rather than by intention. Putting it back together will be a monumental task.
The brutality of ISIS and the shocking beheading of American journalist James Foley have created pressure on President Barack Obama to take charge of the situation in some way. He has already sent in military advisers and mounted air strikes to halt the advance of ISIS, protecting Kurdistan and threatened minorities. In this dangerous time, we ought to remember the drumbeat of war that occurred before our invasion of Iraq in 2003 — how war-happy politicians played on people’s fears at the expense of the truth, how the media spun fanciful tales of an Iraqi threat and created an atmosphere of inevitability. And we ought to remember the disastrous consequences, which are still with us.
Obama is trying to think straight about this crisis, not to be pressured by warmongering politicians or pundits into miring the nation in a new fiasco. For that he is called weak, an easy charge to make for an armchair warrior. There are things the United States must do to stabilize the situation in Iraq and Syria. We have certain responsibilities for the mess that has evolved from the mess we created, especially when minorities face genocidal threats from extremists.
But knitting together the fragments of Iraq will not happen overnight. Sunnis who cooperated with ISIS may find they have made a pact with the devil and seek eventually to ease the grip of Islamist extremists who are enacting hideous crimes. The government in Baghdad may get its act together so that it can push back against the extremists. But the fragmentation of Iraq, and Syria, cannot be reversed by American soldiers. American soldiers set the fragmentation in motion 11 years ago. And the people of Iraq are still paying the price.MORE IN Commentary
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