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America's Future in Iraq

America's Future in Iraq

Let's look at a brilliantly succinct analysis (“Iraq Observations,” published in The Hill) regarding the U.S. in today's Iraq, now threatened by a Sunni-led exceptionally aggressive insurgency recognizing no state boundaries. This issue will be prevalent in media outlets for an extended period and potentially is a great menace to the U.S. Author Brian Michael Jenkins is senior advisor to the RAND Corp. president, a two-generations veteran RAND analyst, and a department head. He has written many well-received books, reports, and articles on terrorism, counterinsurgency, and stabilization and reconstruction.

Jenkins is no ivory-tower academic; he was a commissioned infantry officer, a captain in the Green Berets, and a decorated Vietnam combat veteran. He served on President Bill Clinton's Commission on Aviation Safety and Security and several other federal government commissions. His pithy, incisive, perceptive article is essential to understanding the issues for the U.S. posed by this burgeoning war in the Middle East.

Jenkins makes 10 points after a prefatory paragraph beginning with: “He reminds us domestic politics is a major factor setting the parameters on both presidential and legislative decisions.” He also asks whether President Barack Obama will “be blamed for losing Iraq if [he] does not order military intervention” or whether the American consider him wise “for keeping U.S. forces out of war.” What follows are his cogent and cautionary 10 points.

1. “Assisting Iraq now is not an extension of the Iraq War” because “Iraq has changed.” In 2011, it was potentially democratic; now it is more “autocratic and sectarian.” Kurds and Sunnis are “excluded from power, and Iraq is more closely allied with Iran and has been providing vital support to Syria's President Bashar Assad.” His most important argument is in point No. 2, and it cannot be overemphasized.

2. “America's own strategic interests must be the sole determinant [my emphasis] of any U.S. action in Iraq.” We have “no military alliance with Iraq. No binding treaty obligation. No moral responsibility. Iraq rejected a continued U.S. military presence in 2011. America's debt to those who made sacrifices in the Iraq War is best served by ensuring … any further sacrifices serve [only] American objectives.” In other words, all American and allied human losses (each of them a tragedy) and the $1 trillion spent are sunk costs, and any decision potentially costing lives and dollars must be based solely on American strategic interests and not called for because of previous losses.

3. “The battles for Syria and Iraq will be fought out on the ground by local belligerents. … External powers will remain at the margin … but they will still be targets.”

4. “Iraq hopes American airpower will be provided to buy time to develop … Shia militias. The United States would … not replicate Syria's indiscriminate bombing campaign, but with … no American forces on the ground [designating] targets … collateral casualties would be high.”

5. “Iraq's civil war further exacerbates already growing regional tensions between Sunnis and Shias. … Whether American interests in the region are best served by aligning with a Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus alliance is debatable, but that is a strategic decision, not to be arrived at through incremental tactical responses to events.”

6. “The … military victories of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria eclipse al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaida's central leadership in Pakistan. … But U.S. military action could facilitate reconciliation among al-Qaida's internally warring factions by providing a common external enemy against which all jihadists can … unite.”

7. “America's war on jihadist terrorism is not about to come to an end.” America's people “may not be as interested as they once were in the war on terror,” but this “does not mean terrorists are no longer interested in the United States as a target. The jihadist threat is bigger than ever.”

8. “The borders drawn by colonial powers a century ago have been erased. … Will American commitment to territorial integrity and nation-building confine it to dealing only with existing national governments, or will it adopt a more flexible policy reflecting realities on the ground?”

9. “The forgotten constituency in both Syria and Iraq are the Sunnis who are unrepresented in Damascus and Baghdad but who are appalled and terrified by the jihadists whose actions repel foreign support. … Sunnis could again become America's base in the region [as it did in the Sunni Awakening]. This would require a long-term strategy of political support and some military assistance initially aimed at enabling them to defend themselves against official oppression and jihadist tyranny.”

10. The democracy project engendered by the Arab Spring has run into the sand. … America's commitment to democracy prevents abandonment of basic principles, but the reality [today] is very different.

There is wisdom in Jenkins' essay.