More than two years after the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from Iraq, so-called Iraq War Syndrome is alive and well: The U.S. public remains deeply opposed to any U.S. intervention in the Middle East, especially in Iraq. Which only makes what President Barack Obama has to do in Iraq all the more difficult.
The administration's task is to re-establish a robust counterterrorism partnership with the Iraqi government before the country fragments under the persistent hammer strokes of an ascendant al-Qaida. To say that this will be easier said than done is even more of an understatement than to observe that the U.S. war in Iraq did not go exactly as planned.
The growing peril that confronts the United States is best understood by viewing the all-out civil war in Syria and the deepening crisis next door in Iraq as a single battlefield. That's how al-Qaida in Iraq views it: The group has even renamed itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to reflect its vision and growing ambitions.
In Syria, the Sunni militants of ISIS, estimated at more than 10,000, have emerged as the dominant force among the many rebel factions fighting the government of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. ISIS has captured broad swaths of territory in northern and eastern Syria, and U.S. intelligence officials say it has already begun plotting to export sectarian violence to the wider region in the hopes of raising a Sunni caliphate out of the eventual ashes. That is a dream of Islamic jihadis stretching back well before Osama bin Laden.
Nowhere is that agenda on a faster track than in Iraq, where in recent weeks ISIS has boldly planted the black flag of al-Qaida in the strategic Sunni crossroads cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, capitalizing on seething Sunni resentment against the majority Shiite government of President Nouri al-Maliki. Al-Qaida's wanton murder of mostly Shiite Iraqis helped make 2013 by far the worst year of violence since al-Qaida in Iraq almost plunged the country into an all-out sectarian civil war in 2006-2007. Then, there were more than 140,000 U.S. troops to douse the flames. No such firebreak exists today.
Aware of the peril and shaken by the recent fall of Fallujah, the Obama administration recently fast-tracked the sale of missiles, surveillance drones and prop planes to Baghdad. The Senate also appears close to approving the lease and sale of a few dozen Apache helicopters. Secretary of State John Kerry says that the U.S. is working with the Iraqi government and Sunni tribal leaders in an effort to “support them in every possible way,” though he rules out “boots on the ground” and emphasizes that this is “their fight.”
Such reticence by the U.S. sounds an uncertain trumpet. A relatively low-cost and moderate-risk model — requiring the deployment of teams of U.S. intelligence, special forces and contractor personnel using advanced surveillance tools — is the stock-in-trade of U.S. counterterrorism operations.
Critics worry that Maliki's Shiite-dominated government might turn U.S. weapons on perceived foes in the Sunni tribal ranks; given the increasingly sectarian style of his rule, that's a legitimate fear. That's why the Obama administration should make its military aid explicitly conditional on a new political effort by Maliki for a rapprochement with Sunnis. Sunni leaders, who dominated during the long reign of Saddam Hussein, have also been slow to adjust to their minority status. But Maliki is in charge and must take the initiative.
For its part, the U.S. is undoubtedly loath to be drawn back into the sectarian intrigues of Iraq. At the same time, the U.S. remains the only viable mediator between Iraq's warring factions, which still tend to view politics as a zero-sum game with life-or-death consequences.
None of which is to say that the task ahead in Iraq, like the past decade there, will be easy. Paradoxically, Barack Obama — who won the presidency based in part on his opposition to the war and whose administration has in part defined itself by getting out of it — may be the best man to make the case to the American public for remaining involved in Iraq.