Skip to main content

What the U.S. can realistically do in Iraq

By Nada Bakos and Tara Maller
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
An explosion rocks Kobani, Syria, during a reported car-bomb attack by ISIS militants on Monday, October 20. Civil war has destabilized Syria and created an opening for the militant group, which is also advancing in Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region. An explosion rocks Kobani, Syria, during a reported car-bomb attack by ISIS militants on Monday, October 20. Civil war has destabilized Syria and created an opening for the militant group, which is also advancing in Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region.
HIDE CAPTION
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
Iraq under siege
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
<<
<
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
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Former CIA analysts: After 10 years, U.S. has limited ability to change things in Iraq
  • They say the U.S. goal should be to contain the problem and prevent catastrophe
  • Analysts: U.S. is right to address humanitarian crisis on Mount Sinjar
  • America must ensure that ISIS doesn't acquire chemical, biological weapons, they say

Editor's note: Nada Bakos is a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst who was on the team charged with analyzing terrorism issues in Iraq and was one of those featured in the Emmy award winning HBO documentary, "Manhunt." Tara Maller, who holds a doctorate in political science from MIT, is a research fellow in the International Security Program at the New America Foundation and a former CIA military analyst who focused on Iraq. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN) -- Over the past few days, politicians and experts have been debating the merits of the Obama administration's strategy in Iraq -- or whether there is in fact a strategy.

The debate generally ignores a key underlying fact: The United States no longer has the ability or the will to shape the outcome in Iraq to the degree that American policy makers would like.

At the same time, politicians on both sides of the aisle appear constrained in their ability to talk candidly about U.S. foreign policy objectives and strategy because of concerns about domestic public opinion and so they often default to partisan sound bites.

Nada Bakos
Nada Bakos
Tara Maller
Tara Maller

In an ideal world, U.S. strategy would be carefully calibrated and aimed at a number of political, military and economic goals for the country and the region.

Yet the dynamics of the U.S. relationship with Iraq is similar to most dysfunctional relationships in which problematic patterns repeat and persist over time.

One party may in fact be able to change the entrenched dysfunctional behavior of another person at the margins, but at the end of the day, countries -- as do people -- need to take responsibility for their behavior, their mistakes and their future.

How religion could complicate U.S. intervention in Iraq

Unfortunately, the reality is that after more than 10 years of trying to shape outcomes in Iraq, the United States is forced to acknowledge it doesn't have the leverage we expected. The next best option is to find a solution that encompasses our values but doesn't err on the side of unrealistic idealism.

U.S. weighs options to rescue Yazidis
Yazidis fleeing potential genocide

America's greatest failure has perhaps been our unwavering belief that we are always able to positively influence and shape the behavior of others through rhetoric, coercion, force and diplomacy. Leverage, as the United States has historically defined it, is not as relevant in today's conflicts. However, the conditions are not ripe for the United States to pull Iraq out of this quagmire given the lack of interest in America after over a decade of war and the political gridlock here and in Iraq.

In our time as analysts at the CIA, we were asked to present the opposite of what political punditry and partisan speeches tend to do. We were often asked to outline worst-case scenarios, speak truth to power and accurately assess dynamics on the ground. We were not supposed to sugarcoat our analysis to make it more palatable or to cater to the audience with empty words or false optimism. We were trained to try to objectively assess and analyze the veracity of reporting to help inform policymakers' decisions.

So, while it may not be politically popular for a leader or a president to say that "we can't influence longer-term outcomes to the degree that we'd like in Iraq, so we are adopting a strategy to avert worst-case scenarios and contain catastrophe," this is precisely the strategy we believe ought to be adopted right now.

We need an honest strategy based on containing catastrophe. In other words, our strategy at this point ought to be designed to thwart the worst outcomes from occurring and it should focus on preventing moral, humanitarian and security catastrophes.

The United States can make a significant difference in the lives of Iraqis and in the realm of our own national security even if the future of Iraq ultimately rests in hands of Iraqis.

The Islamic State, known by the acronym ISIS, is on a rampage to take over and control territory. The United States must degrade ISIS capabilities so that it is unable to launch a significant terrorist attack on U.S. interests (or a large mass casualty attack anywhere in the world).

ISIS is a product of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's organization dating back to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. After Zarqawi was killed in 2006, the Islamic State of Iraq emerged from his original organization and began to flourish.

ISIS has capitalized on (former) Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's unwillingness to work with the local Sunni populations and the power vacuum left by Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria.

ISIS and Zarqawi's organization have thrived on sectarian violence, but ISIS has managed to professionalize military and humanitarian aid. As ISIS disperses and embeds in populated areas, it will become more difficult to root out.

Its possible Achilles heel is the eventual erosion of local support from Sunnis while ISIS asserts control to govern and maintain territory. This gives the U.S. an opening to work with the Iraq and Kurdish government, in addition to regional allies, by helping to resolve a humanitarian crisis and limiting the group's ability to acquire new territory for safe haven.

The U.S. ought to continue targeted airstrikes with cooperation from Iraqi security forces and allies -- whether that takes days, weeks or months.

Second, we can and should prevent the potential for genocide or ethnic cleansing in Iraq. Arguing that the United States hasn't acted in other areas of the world or can't act in every single case of violence is not an argument against acting when we are able to make a difference.

And, we are able to make a difference right now in northern Iraq at a moment of crisis -- such as the operation underway assisting those stranded and dying on Mount Sinjar -- and we should also turn our eyes to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, where the U.S. can also make difference.

If the U.S. can support the local population and help to bolster local governments, ISIS will have a much more difficult time recruiting and controlling territory. Jabhat al-Nusra is an example of how successfully terrorist organizations can galvanize support and generate influence among local populations through charitable efforts.

Third, we must prevent terrorist groups operating in Iraq and Syria from acquiring biological or chemical weapons that they would be able to use in a mass casualty attack. From a national security perspective, it's important to remember Syria's al-Assad has not relinquished all of his chemical and biological weapons. The last thing we want is for these to fall in the hands of ISIS.

Why does the U.S. intervene militarily in Iraq but not in Syria?

Fourth, ISIS has attracted young fighters who understand how to talk to prospective recruits through all forms of media. Some of those recruits are Western passport holders and they are possibly the largest number of Western citizens identified fighting alongside a terrorist organization.

Not only do they pose a threat in the region, individuals can also be difficult to track from the war theater when returning home.

Lastly, the United States should work to maintain the security of its embassies and consulates. The recent evacuations and relocations of staff are a troublesome trend (albeit for the safety and security of diplomatic personnel). Ensuring that our diplomats are able to safely operate and function in foreign countries, especially Iraq, is critical.

Any type of serious attack on an embassy or U.S. personnel working in the country would make it increasingly difficult for the United States to address the issues we discuss above. In addition, maintaining a functioning embassy is important for information collection, assessing progress and being able to work with Iraqis -- particularly on the political side of the equation.

A foreign policy strategy speech predicated on containing catastrophe might not be a speech that inspires the American public, but it is an honest strategy that would be based on a realistic approach to our foreign policy in Iraq.

Such an approach is good for America's national security and for addressing the humanitarian concerns of those suffering during crisis.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT