Skip to main content

Obama, don't get sucked into Iraq III

By Aaron David Miller
updated 3:32 PM EDT, Sat June 14, 2014
An Iranian Kurdish female member of the Freedom Party of Kurdistan keeps a position in Dibis, Iraq, on Monday, September 15. Some of the world's top diplomats <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/09/15/world/meast/isis-threat/'>have pledged to support Iraq</a> in its fight against ISIS militants by "any means necessary," including "appropriate military assistance." ISIS has taken over large swaths of northern and western Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate that stretches from Syria to Iraq. An Iranian Kurdish female member of the Freedom Party of Kurdistan keeps a position in Dibis, Iraq, on Monday, September 15. Some of the world's top diplomats have pledged to support Iraq in its fight against ISIS militants by "any means necessary," including "appropriate military assistance." ISIS has taken over large swaths of northern and western Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate that stretches from Syria to Iraq.
HIDE CAPTION
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Writer: Obama administration will likely yield to pressure to act on ISIS advances in Iraq
  • He says it should not. The U.S. could not have prevented crisis. Bad Iraqi governance was key
  • He says any success repelling ISIS in Iraq will be short-lived unless U.S. also does so in Syria
  • U.S. would need sustained strategy if it is to address crisis. We've seen this movie before, he says

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- The Obama administration likely will succumb to growing pressure to "do something" kinetic and dramatic in Iraq, and when it does, it will most likely be air and missile strikes against ISIS targets. This could relieve the political pressure on the President: His critics continue to blame him for abdicating U.S. leadership in Syria and in Iraq --which now faces the advancing extremist militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

But answering the political mail in Washington is not the same thing as dealing with, let alone resolving, the complex issues on the ground that have led to this crisis. To do that would require a comprehensive reengagement strategy, even without boots on the ground. And President Barack Obama should not be drawn into a veritable Iraq war III.

Aaron David Miller
Aaron David Miller

Most of Obama's detractors engage in what I call "woulda/coulda/shoulda" criticism. That is to say, if the President had only invested more time and effort in negotiating a status of forces agreement with the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, left a residual presence there, enforced his chemical weapons red line in Syria and backed the moderate opposition there, we wouldn't be seeing the ISIS jihadi rampage playing out in both countries.

But given the limited amount of intervention this administration, Congress, and the public would support, even under the best of circumstances, the U.S. could not have stopped the dynamic that is occurring.

We cannot hold Iraq's hand forever, nor end Syria's civil war without a major military commitment. And the longer the Syrian conflict continued, the more of a boon the conflict would provide to jihadi elements who fed off its violence and sectarian character.

As for Iraq, the al-Maliki government's insistence on maintaining Shia dominance and privilege, and repressing Sunnis, created the perfect ferment for ISIS's spread. No amount of U.S. military power summoned by any administration could have compensated for this kind of bad sectarian governance. That and the weak institutions of the Iraqi state have allowed ISIS to thrive.

No matter how much progress the U.S. made in Iraq between 2003 and 2011, the dysfunction that now shapes Iraq's future was driven by factors set into motion by the very act of the invasion, Iraq's nature and its location. And those same factors limit now what the U.S. can do; they should make Washington wary of getting sucked back in.

Back to Iraq: What can - and should - the U.S. do now?

Maliki's sectarian dominance

Iraqi commander: 'There will be blood'
What are the best U.S. options in Iraq?
Obama: Up to Iraq to solve its problems
Meet the terrorists who scare Al-Qaeda

How can you expect stability and security in a country where the political contract between the governed and those who govern is completely skewed in the direction of the Shia community? But that's what you have with Nuri al-Maliki; and that's unlikely to change. Shia repression has left Sunnis feeling disenfranchised -- one reason why violence has surged in the last year -- and this is why it's hard to get Sunni elements of the military to fight and resist ISIS moves. It's also why some key Sunni elements are reportedly in league with the ISIS jihadis.

It's a reason to be careful about backing a government not committed to serious power sharing and reform, let alone to use direct U.S. military intervention to defend it. The U.S. couldn't build the new Iraq on the backs of American military power before it was clear that al-Maliki was a Shia triumphalist. How are we to do it today when it's clear that he is?

The neighbors

Geography is destiny. This isn't America's neighborhood: It does not have the same kind of stake as those who live there. The U.S. may be committed to a nonsectarian, pluralist, democratic Iraq where everybody gets along in one big happy family. But Iran and Saudi Arabia envision very different outcomes, and they will act in ways detrimental to our interests.

Iran is worried about ISIS to be sure. But Iran knows that its long-term interests depend on a stable Iraq under Shia dominance. That means that while it will assist al-Maliki, it won't pressure him to reform. The Saudis, on the other hand, can't abide al-Maliki and while they are worried about the Sunni jihadis, they see some merit in weakening the Prime Minister. Both Tehran and Riyadh will continue to see Iraq as a battleground to check the other's influence and to promote their side in a Sunni-Shia war. Iraq's stability and the U.S.'s altruistic vision of Iraq's future will be the casualties.

The Syrian civil war

Any U.S. strategy that deals with Iraq in isolation will fail to get at a main sources of the ISIS threat. The Syrian civil war was a godsend for these jihadi groups. And unless the United States is prepared to expand its area of operations and to develop a sustained, aggressive strategy to contain if not destroy the ISIS presence in Syria, any effort in Iraq will at best produce a short-term success. Having willfully avoided militarizing the U.S. role in Syria, the President may well go ahead and do so now, with all the risks of mission creep. Attacking ISIS will also help Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Iran in Iraq.

A serious strategy

And that brings us to the most difficult dimension of this entire problem. Without a serious and sustained strategy that has a military, counterterrorism, political and economic component, including mobilizing the international community, it's hard to see how the Obama administration can realistically put these Humpty Dumptys back together again. To do that would mean American involvement -- for starters CIA or special forces in an advisory capacity, most likely functioning clandestinely.

Airstrikes, even if they worked to check ISIS, would have to be used repeatedly over time. And more training for the Iraqi military -- most likely with advisers on the ground to instruct in the use of sophisticated military equipment -- would be necessary. And despite all of this, it's likely that ISIS may still be able to secure enclaves in Iraq.

Haven't we seen this movie before? It was called Iraq 2003-2011, and it clearly didn't have a happy ending.

So, Mr. President, you probably have no other choice but to get sucked back into Iraq with military strikes. It might even have positive short-term results. But it likely won't over time. Triumphalist Shia, unhappy Sunnis, Iranian influence, and Kurdish separatists will guarantee it. Iraq was a trap for America once before. It will be again.

5 predictions revisited: Iraq's troubles are years in the making

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:24 PM EDT, Sat September 20, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT