So, this is where we are in America today: the wealthy son of a real estate developer who used five deferments to let others go to war in his place attacks, with a straight face, a United States Naval Academy graduate who spent five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp with complications from a broken leg and two broken arms suffered when his plane was shot down – and we treat it as just another political debate. During another time in our country, had somebody like Donald Trump dared to say that somebody like Senator John McCain wasn’t a war hero because he “got captured” — or that he “like(s) people who weren’t captured” — my guess is that more than a few fire and food inspectors would have been kept busy for reported “complications” at Trump Hotels across America.
But while many Americans will likely hear McCain’s high-minded response — that Trump doesn’t owe him an apology but should express sorrow to other prisoners of war and their families — I really wish more Americans would hear what the senior senator from Arizona is saying about Iraq instead. It is much more relevant to America’s future than any buffoonery babbling out of the billionaire blowhard from the Bronx.
As McCain said flatly in a 2013 Foreign Policy essay written along with fellow Senator Lindsay Graham, “Iraq is being lost.” The question, as they said then and say now, is not “who is to blame for it?” The question is “what do we do about it?” McCain and Graham tried to kick-start a different conversation in May, calling for a new military surge in Iraq to counter the fall of Ramadi to ISIS warriors and what they call “a failing U.S. war strategy in Iraq.”
Let’s be clear: Iraq is not Iraq anymore. It’s not the Iraq it was when America ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003, and it’s not the more stable Iraq it was in 2011 when President Barack Obama withdrew all American troops in December of that year. Without U.S. troops in place to keep centuries-old sectarian hatreds at bay, as Charles Krauthammer has written, we “created a vacuum for the entry of the worst of the worst.” As a result, “Iraq is now a battlefield between the Sunni jihadists of the Islamic State and the Shiite jihadists of Iran’s Islamic Republic. There is no viable center.”
Iraq is really three different countries today. In the south, there are Shia who have little interest in taking on the battle-hardened soldiers of the Islamic State. In the center and west of this ancient land, where the Islamic State has made its greatest inroads, there are Sunnis with little love for ISIS and its campaign of terror against fellow Sunnis but even less love for the Shiite government in Baghdad. In the north and east, the Kurds have proven to be fierce fighters when defending their land, but who have little interest in engaging the Islamic State in defense of Sunni lands or in support of Shiite fighters.
Meanwhile, Baghdad has all but abandoned the idea of a combined Sunni-Shiite army in favor of an all-Shiite fighting force, called the Iraqi Security Forces. The Iraqi army distinguished itself in May by running away from Islamic State fighters in Ramadi, despite an overwhelming force advantage, leaving U.S.-supplied weapons behind for ISIS to use while leading U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to suggest the ISF “lacked the will to fight.”
That leaves the Iraqi government to depend on the Popular Mobilization Forces, made up of Iran-supported Shia militia who killed Americans prior to 2010 and exist solely to advance Shiite power in Sunni lands – and who, if they were to attack ISIS in Ramadi or further in Sunni territory, would be targeted by Sunnis who would regard them as a greater evil than the Islamic State. Indeed, the once-veiled presence of Iran in Baghdad is so open now that leaders from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard reportedly arrive in the open in the capital, not far from a billboard in which the image of the Ayatollah Khomeini can reportedly be seen holding a map of Iraq in his hand. In effect, as writer Peter Van Buren has observed, the U.S. has “passively watched the Iranians become its proxy boots on the ground against (the) Islamic State, all the while knowing Tehran’s broader agenda was a Shiite Iraqi client.”
It’s little wonder, then, that the Obama strategy to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State through a combination of targeted bombing and militia training has failed to measure up to the size of the challenge: it’s hard to know who to train when everybody seems to want to kill everybody else. It’s one of the reasons why the U.S., despite 3,500 U.S. military trainers deployed since last year, has trained fewer than 9,000 Iraqi army and Kurdish soldiers while recruiting just 1,300 Sunni tribesman to engage in the fight – who, in particular, don’t believe the U.S will support them if Iran-backed Shiite forces turn their guns on them.
It’s also a leading reason why no Arab countries have showed up to help, or why there have been no Arab boots on the ground, despite a great Arab coalition announced a year ago. For a U.S. seen to be placating Iran both on the battlefield and at the negotiating table – where it just agreed to an historic pact that limits the size of Iran’s nuclear program for a decade in exchange for economic sanctions being lifted–there is little reason for Arab nations to stick their necks out in Iraq and risk drawing the direct ire of the Islamic State.
So, what is the U.S. willing to do?
As Senators McCain and Graham argue, the U.S. can launch a new military surge that brings a sufficient number of American troops back to Iraq to battle the Islamic State directly. While critics argue that 166,000 U.S. troops over the previous decade essentially fought enemy forces to a standstill, it overlooks the fact that U.S. troops fighting alongside Sunni tribes in the so-called “Anbar Awakening” of 2007 surged past al-Qaeda militias to stabilize the country and prevent it from descending into anarchy. The combination of Special Forces and tactical air teams , deployed alongside Iraqi troops, as General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, puts it “would make them more than capable” of beating back the Islamic State.
Still, as Obama knows, the American people have little appetite to see more of their sons and daughters die on the battlefield in Iraq, particularly for a religious war whose roots date back 1,400 years. Should the U.S. be successful in stabilizing Iraq again through force, keeping that peace would require an occupation force of significant enough size to prevent precisely the return to violence we’ve seen since 2011 – an occupation force that could approach Germany and South Korea-levels of commitment, both of whom still host U.S. troops more than half a century after their respective wars ended.
If America doesn’t have the stomach for such an open-ended commitment — and honestly, it’s hard to imagine a successful candidacy for the White House in 2016 built around the theme, “Let’s Re-invade Iraq” — the options get much more limited.
But there are three things that would make a difference.
First, the U.S. should recognize that the Iraqi government speaks only for a third of what was Iraq. Washington should no longer channel our aid and military assistance through Baghdad, which has proven that it cannot be an honest broker. Since 2011, successive Shiite governments have refused to pay the Kurds their share of the federal Treasury, while reducing the flow of U.S. weapons and other support intended for Kurdistan to a trickle. America should continue to support the government in some nominal way.
Second, we should send military support and aid directly to the Kurds, understanding that such support is an investment in containing the Islamic State from pushing north or east. As I have argued before, the U.S. should finally acknowledge what everyone knows to be reality and recognize an independent Kurdistan as America’s most loyal ally in the region outside of Israel.
Third, we should work with Sunni governments in Saudi Arabia and Turkey to provide training and assistance to Sunni tribes in the center and west of the country, and commit to the safety of Sunni tribes should Iran-backed militias push into Sunni lands.
In 2008, John McCain suggested that for peace to prevail, America “could wind up with a presence in Iraq for 100 years.” Many derided John McCain’s idea then – but do any of us believe Iraq would be the mess it is today if the U.S. had maintained a reasonable troop level in 2011? That’s even harder to believe than Donald Trump.