Iraq debate misses the point

Story highlights

  • The key Iraqi city of Ramadi fell to ISIS on Sunday
  • Frida Ghitis: Fall of Ramadi is a disaster for U.S. foreign policy

Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Should the United States have invaded Iraq? That was the question occupying the minds of Republican candidates for the presidency over the weekend, even as militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria rolled into one of the country's most important cities, Ramadi, slaughtering hundreds of people, and routing (U.S.-backed) Iraqi government forces.

The fall of Ramadi is a disaster not just for the people of Iraq, but also for U.S. foreign policy. Remember, it was only last summer that the United States joined the fight against ISIS and President Barack Obama launched "Operation Inherent Resolve," aiming to "degrade and destroy" the self-described Islamic State, which controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq while also drawing the support of militant groups and individuals around the world.
So, while the 2003 invasion launched by President George W. Bush was unquestionably a major moment in history -- and certainly warrants discussion by those who wish to sit at the big desk in the Oval Office -- there is surely a far more important and urgent question that all candidates must now answer: What would you do about what is happening in Iraq right now?
    Of course, that is a much more difficult question for the candidates -- politicians would rather tell voters something they already believe about the issue, an approach that has the political advantage of having practically no consequences should the candidate win the presidency.
    In contrast, the question of how you would handle today's crisis in Iraq and Syria is not only extremely difficult, but it also contains the added problem that an answer that satisfies voters now could put the next president under pressure to follow through after the 2016 election.
    The Obama administration and the Pentagon have, for their part, been pretending the plan to defeat ISIS is working. They insist that the Islamist extremists are on the defensive, on their heels. For example, Marine Brig. Gen. Thomas Weidley, one of the top officials for the operation, told a reporter that in Ramadi, ISIS was "attempting to hold previous gains while conducting small-scale localized harassing attacks." Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, said "I am absolutely confident in the days ahead" the Ramadi losses will be reversed.
    But Iraqi officials have glumly conceded the city has fallen, and the entire battle a reminder of how weak the Iraqi army remains and how dangerously divided the country is.
    This matters for both symbolic and strategic reasons.
    Ramadi, where hundred of American troops died, is the capital of Anbar Province, the country's largest, and is the heart of Sunni Iraq. It is also the place where the American-crafted "Sunni Awakening" built up Iraq's Sunni tribes into a force that defeated al Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of ISIS.
    Now, Iraq is reportedly deploying Iran-backed Shiite militias, a response that runs counter to Middle Eastern and Iraqi stability, risks strengthening an Iranian regime that already troubles America's Arab allies, and adds to sectarian tensions within Iraq. Indeed, Iraq's Sunnis fear that the country's central government, with Iran's help, is in the process of seizing control of all Sunni areas.
    Just as importantly, Ramadi lies only 70 miles west of Baghdad, putting ISIS ever closer to the capital. Simply put, if Baghdad falls, we can say goodbye to Iraq as we know it -- the country will break into a Sunni state, controlled by ISIS, at least initially, a Shiite state, loyal to Iran, and a Kurdish state in the north.
    So, what to do?
    Unfortunately, the 2016 candidates have little to say on this issue right now.
    In February, Hillary Clinton described what is essentially Obama's strategy: using U.S. air power to complement soldiers from the region, particularly Iraq, to attack ISIS.
    Republicans, meanwhile, mostly vow to be "decisive." Jeb Bush vows "Greater global engagement..." and a strategy that would downplay diplomacy and aim to "take them out." Scott Walker embarrassed himself with his analogy that he was able to crush Wisconsin's unions, so therefore he can handle challenges like ISIS.
    And while Marco Rubio did offer a somewhat more nuanced approach, saying the United States should provide air support for a military ground force made up of Sunni fighters from regional governments, he has also come in for criticism for his response to the question of whether the U.S. invasion was a mistake.
    The candidates will have to do better than this, because if President Obama's current strategy does not start producing results soon, the ISIS challenge will take center stage in foreign policy debates, and candidates will have to put together much more detailed and coherent proposals for tackling the issue. It will not be enough for Hillary Clinton, for example, to suggest we might not be in this place if the President had listened to her proposals as secretary of state to lend more muscular support to Syrian rebels.
    But an effective, comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS and save Iraq will not be easy to put together. For a start, it will require tackling the group in both Syria and Iraq. It will also require daring to upset the Iranians, whose allied militias have become a major arm against ISIS on Iraqi soil. In addition, it will mean pressuring the Iraqi government to empower Sunni tribal fighters, as the Sunni Awakening groups did. And finally, it will require working much faster to create a viable alternative to Bashar al-Assad in Syria, because today the only options there right now are the vicious dictatorship that is in place, or bloodthirsty Islamist militias -- terrible choices all.
    These are issues that matter today and that will impact the future, so voters need to hear them being discussed in an open and honest way. And they are issues that will require some tough decisions -- decisions that the next president will not have the luxury of 12 years of hindsight before making.